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Friday, April 30, 2010

Big Luck in the Valley

Tualco V. March

The County work crew has not scraped away all the luck in the Valley. You just have to look for it a little further off the shoulder. On my walk the other day I found the largest four-leaf clover I believe I have ever found. This clover, like most I find, announced itself by leaning to the south, turning its four leaves to the sun. I plucked my trophy from its three-leaf fellows and lugged it home.Four!

This Big Luck got me to thinking clover thoughts. In an earlier post I cited this statistic: one four-leaf for every 32,000 three-leafs. I wonder about the accuracy of this statistic. There are areas of clover patch I have passed for years—these patches have an abundance of clovers—and I have yet to find a single superfluous leafed clover among those. Is this the case of mind over matter, I wonder? Because I have never found a four-leaf in these patches before, does my visual acuity “shut down” because of past experience?  Surely there are four-leafers among the thirty-two thousands of three leafs. But I have yet to find one in these clover patches.

Now my thoughts wander to clovers in general. A bit of research yields there are 300 some species of trifolium or trefoil, the Northern Hemisphere having the largest species diversity. That explains the different leaf patterns I see in the patches alongside the road. Aside from the big red clovers visited by bumble bees, I know of Dutch clover, the species that speckles your lawn on lazy summer days—those little white balls perched on a stem. These are honeybee clovers and the nectar source for the Greenish blue butterfly (Plebejus saepiolus),as well as the clovers bare-foot children tread on, at risk from bee stings on the balls of their feet.  There’s also sweet clover, a a trefoil unlikely to yield a four-leaf specimen.  This clover, akin to alfalfa, grows to a height of six or seven feet, has a flower spike yellow or white in color.The abundant clover honey sold in grocery stores comes from the nectar of this clover.

I check my pressed clovers from past visits in the Valley. None are as large as the one I found today. I thumb through A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English until I find the pressed clover squashed between silly and Simon Pure/Simon Soon Gone and Sing O Be Easy. A record-size four-leaf, I think? Wonder what The Guinness Book of Records lists for this category? I measure the flattened leaves of my Valley trophy: 2 and 14/16 inches, nudging three inches. Guinness’s Records, I learn, has no category for “Biggest/Largest” four-leaf clover, only Record clover “collections” of four-leaf clovers. One Edward Martin of Cooper Landing, Alaska, holds that record, ensconced in Guinness with his collection of 111,060 four-leafers collected between years 1999 and 2007 (no update was given). In the UK a Kathleen Jasmine has boasted finding the smallest four-leaf, a 2/16”peewee, scarcely more than a mote of green. (Kathy must have been nosing through clover patches with a magnifying glass.) Ms. Jasmine also claims a large 2” four-leaf and a patch of clovers that yielded thirty-five four-leafers. (Seems like that would be hard to verify unless an official from the Guinness folk watched Kathy pluck all thirty-five.) I believe she applied for clover records but was turned down by the organization for whatever reason.

How would Ed Martin preserve, archive, and store a collection of over one hundred thousand clovers? Seems to me he would have to bale them: the largest (and only) bale of four-leaf clovers! Now there’s a record for you. Another visitor to the Guinness Book of Records page claimed his uncle had a collection of 2,500 four-leafs. Uncle kept his in a binder. Mine are stored in a four and a quarter inch square clear plastic box an inch and a half deep.

A pressed clover is slightly thicker than gold leaf.The box is not quite half full after years of collecting and pressing these “quadrafoils.” I have no idea how many it contains, nor do I remember how many I have slipped between the pages of the books I give away. (At this posting a four-leaf is on its way to Lawrence, Kansas, snug inside Bill Streever’s book Cold, a little Tualco Valley luck for Floyd Preston.)

I think how nice it would be to have Tualco Valley, Washington State, U.S.A. represented in The Guinness Book of Records—the biggest four-leaf clover in the Whole Wide World. What do you think? Should I contact the folks at Guinness and submit my Valley prize?

(Here’s my fear. If Ed Martin found any of his clovers in the Matanuska Valley north of Anchorage, an area known for its large vegetables, where in the Land of the Midnight Sun farmers raise 80 to 100 pound cabbages, my Valley clover might be little more than a pipsqueak against his.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Disenfranchised From the Valley

Tualco V. March

The Monroe School District has a school levy and bond issue on the ballot. I just voted mine. I filled in the shanks of the “yes” “no”arrows, tucked the ballot neatly in the “secrecy” envelope (below the red line), signed the return envelope, and at the risk of dehydration, applied my tongue to the three glue strips to seal the whole thing off. As I walked to the mailbox to post my ballot, I thought of those bygone days before hanging chads, electronic voting and the ubiquitous mail-in ballot, a simpler time when we performed our civic duty at the Tualco Valley Grange. Tualco GrangeOn voting days, weather permitting, I would pedal Gladys to the Grange Hall to cast my vote.

As I rolled to a stop in the parking lot, the feeling came over me that I had just ridden into a Norman Rockwell painting. There was Old Glory pinned to the siding near the “No Electioneering” sign. I was never quite sure what this meant but whatever it was, I certainly was not there to do any of it.

As I balance Gladys on her kickstand, I wonder if Valley folk at one time rode to the Grange on horseback, tied their nags to a hitching post, marked their ballots, mounted up and trotted back to their farms. By the smell that greets me as I enter the Grange, I imagine this may have been the case—not a barn or stable smell, the smell of large animals--but a musty odor of damp, mildew, disuse: the smell of a used bookstore, as if history itself exuded fumes.

The polling place is staffed by civic-minded matrons, some who may have been present in the Valley back in August of 1920 when the 19th Amendment gave them the right to vote. I am sure by now they have exercised their patriotic duty. There would be no pies baked in their kitchens this day. These women are of sturdy stock, and if you put bonnets on them, each would look right at home on the wooden seat of a Conestoga wagon. They are friendly but business-like, determined to do their best to assist with the vote. Though the resolve on their faces reminds me of the three women in Grant Wood’s painting “Daughters of the Revolution,” I know polling day is a social event for them as well, a chance to visit with friends and neighbors. Get caught up.Who knows what good gossip may rear its lovely head before the polls close at 8:00 p.m.?

The Tualco Grange does not always smell like yore distilled. Twice annually, spring and fall, the smell of strong coffee and fried ham mingles with bouquet of pancake at Grange pancake breakfasts. At the Christmas program the meeting hall smells of children and candy and excitement. I have smelled wedding flowers there once and the good food prepared to celebrate Jerald and Tina Streutker’s Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary. Just recently it must have smelled of birthday cake and candles, someone’s Fortieth birthday—as announced by the black balloons bobbing from the Grange flagpole.

Mustiness aside, today, voting day, smells like purpose, like patriotism. It is an inclusive feeling, like you’re not an “Island” but part of the “Main.” Your ballot is like the Widow’s mite: it’s the little part you can do. And that’s why you approach the sign-in table manned by two “Revolutionary Daughters.” Spread before them is a large, open ledger, for they are the keepers of the rolls, the names of the registered voters in the precinct, you among them. And since the two trustees know who you are, they quickly flip the pages to your page, and there you are, neatly alphabetized. You sign your name longhand just as the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, exchange a few pleasantries for a ballot, and wait for an open booth. You never have to wait long on voting day at the Tualco Grange.

Marked ballot in hand, you proceed to the Third Daughter’s table where she superintends a varnished plywood box ( her husband’s carpentry work, perhaps?). The box has a slotted lid which is secured with a padlock and hasp from the local hardware store (more secure than any “secrecy envelope”). You hand her your ballot, and she removes the ballot number, drops it in a box with the day’s tally. The ballot she returns for you to drop in the slot. You watch it disappear and note the varnish has been worn from the slot, paper worn, from years of voting.

Voting at the Tualco Grange had its rewards. As I turn to leave, the keeper of the box picks up a roll of “I Voted” stickers, peels one off, and with a smile hands it to me. I return a “You’re Welcome” grin. But the sticker is really for Gladys, a bumper sticker of her very own. I rub the dust from her rear fender, apply the sticker, and press it firmly in place. There. “I Voted.” You can’t get much more political than that.civic-minded

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gladys Goes Off Road

Tualco V. March

It is a typical spring morning on the Tualco Lower Loop Road (borderline woolen supplements). As Gladys and I crank by the Andy Werkhoven home adjacent the fishermen’s parking lot, I notice a Bald Eagle regular in a large cottonwood tree overlooking the river. “Photo op,” I’m thinking because of another eagle regular that perches on a power pole behind the dairy farm’s “mound of death” further down the road. Eagle Eye outI watched two kids on bikes, escorted by Steve Werkhoven’s German Shepherd, pass directly beneath the pole with no more than a curious glance from Baldy. Gladys and I go off road and roll down into the fishermen’s parking lot to dolly up for the shot. At pasture’s edge we follow a road that skirts the riverbank. Gladys balks and I quickly discover the road is mostly river sand deposited from the last high water. The sand is anything but “quick” sand because Gladys bogs down, founders, and refuses to budge another inch. I end up on foot, pushing my stubborn steed out of the sand trap back up to the asphalt. And the eagle?? It was long gone up the river—and if eagles have a sense of humor, that one certainly left his perch laughing.

I finished a book a while ago, Two Coots in a Canoe, (David E. Morine, Globe Pequot Press, 2009)about two senior citizens who decided to canoe the Connecticut River from source to its confluence with Long Island Sound. Along the way the “two coots,” David Morine and Ramsay Peard, overnighted with strangers. One of the strangers, a Susan LaScala, invited Dave and Ramsay to her bedroom to watch a closed circuit t.v. feed from the Eagle Cam, a video camera installed above a Bald Eagles’ nest by the local Fish and Wildlife agency. Dave, himself a conservationist,  commented that it seemed highly unusual for a Wildlife agency to disturb nesting eagles. Susan’s reply: “It’s not the eagles that are upset. It’s the cat owners. When they installed the camera, they discovered the nest was full of cat collars. The cat owners went nuts. They couldn’t believe the eagles were eating their pets.” Author Morine then comments:

“It serves them right. Cats are killing machines. Studies compiled by the American Bird Conservancy show that the fifty million feral cats that run wild kill well over a billion birds a year. While the feral cat population keeps increasing, bird populations world-wide are in steep decline. Loss of habitat is the number-one cause, and with birds being forced into smaller areas, they’ve become very easy prey. When told that cats and humans are the only species that kill purely for fun and that they should keep their cats indoors, most cat owners would go into complete denial. Having the eagles snatch a few Tabbys, Tiggers, or Socks isn’t going to solve this problem, but it might scare some cat owners into being more responsible.”

Following closely on the heels of this information, I  recently read two more accounts of the cat/bird situation. One from the marketing-aggressive Birds and Blooms magazine: “Here are a couple of things to consider in the interest of both your cat and the birds in your backyard. First of all, by keeping your cat indoors, you are offering it a healthier, happier, and longer life while saving the lives of birds that frequent your feeders, as well as ducklings and other baby birds that hatch in your neighborhood.”[By way of example I’ve included a photo of just such a cat: “healthier, happier,”yes, but still ever vigilant of the birdlife that flits about the feeders— just on the other side of the glass.]Mr. B. Indoor catAnd this last note from Bill Streever’s Cold: “The estimate of one hundred million birds per year killed by cats in the United States is provided by the National Audubon Society. Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College has estimated that cats kill seven million birds each year in Wisconsin alone.”

When the annual Christmas tree is spent, we take it outside, prop it against the boxwood hedge where it becomes a fir tree bird feeder for the next couple months. Daily I sprinkle birdseed liberally on and about the tree, and the birds flock just as liberally to it. Neighborhood cats, however, are quick to notice the flurry of bird activity, creep through the hedge, and lurk in ambush beneath the leaning tree. Although I send these marauding felines packing whenever I see them about, sadly, on more than one occasion we have seen a hapless ball of feathers clamped between the jaws of a triumphant tabby exiting the premises. Once news of easy pickin’s spreads through the local cat community,  I toss the holiday tree on the burn pile and continue feeding from aerial feeders.

The Tweetie/Sylvester issue reminds me of a cartoon I came across sometime back. A couple were preparing for a two week vacation. Wife sends the husband to the store for supplies, among them food enough to last the family cats for the duration of  the two week absence. Husband returns with twenty pounds of birdseed….

Back to the feline snatching eagles. Someone ought to tip them off about the bounty of cats that abide at the Decks’ dairy farm. Certainly in their daily movements about the Valley, the eagles know about this feline jackpot. I’m thinking it’s the collars the eagles are after. Yeah, they must want a bit of bling to dress up the old aerie. And where Decks’ cats are concerned, I’ve yet to see a collar among them.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Four and Twenty Blackbirds…

Tualco V. March It is a chilly thirty-seven degrees in the Valley this morning and the raptors are on watch. A kestrel keeps vigil from the power lines, alert for any prospects in Broers’ berry fields. Perched atop the old maple tree opposite Swiss Hall is a juvenile Bald Eagle, still wearing its scruffy adolescence, a year or so away from the white crowning glory and tail that is its claim.

By the calf pens along Sargent Road I notice a little Subaru, hatchback up, and a man with a spotting scope trained back toward Swiss Hall. “Ah, more Valley news,” I think and turn up Sargent Road to get my scoop.

Mr. Marv Breece, birder, is a cheerful—I would say almost jaunty,—gentleman. He has dressed appropriately for a chilly morning,  wears a neat-looking padded vest donned over a sweatshirt, pocket-Dockers, and ball cap, all in understated color. Typical understated plumage for the avid birder; Marv is there to observe, not be observed. Marv Breece, BirderI judge it to be about 10:00 a.m. Birder Breece must have been up and on the road early to arrive here from the Fremont district of Seattle. After making a couple jokes about Fremont’s notable Summer Solstice Parade and the Fremont Troll, I ask him if he’s noticed the eagle in the maple tree, rather a flip question to ask an avid birder, who I’m sure has spotted many a lesser sized bird unnoticed by most passers-by. He’s seen it, of course, noted it was not a Golden Eagle, which Marv tells me can make a rare appearance here in Western Washington. I learn some interesting differences between these two regal birds: Bald Eagles are more carrion-eaters and less the hunters Golden Eagles are. Juveniles included, Golden Eagles all display a distinguishing golden scruff on the back of their necks. Bald Eagles have a more massive beak for the tearing of flesh. Golden Eagles are more akin to red-tailed hawks, I’m informed, and like them are hunters, preferring fresh kills to after the fact meals.  

But Marv has not come to the Valley to spy on the local eagles. He has his spotting scope trained on the calf pens where an abundance of black birds are feeding. Most are Brewer’s blackbirds but among them Marv has spotted a Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus). Rusty is truly a rarity in these parts, I learn. Marv has a digital camera with a special barrel attachment that fits over the spotting scope’s eyepiece and hopes to digitize this uncommon visitor. He tells me that among the Brewer’s, starlings, and the occasional crow, there are brown-headed cowbirds also. How anyone could spot a rare bird among the dozens of “black birds” feeding among the calves was amazing. Marv trained his scope on a cowbird so I could distinguish it from the others.

I tell Marv about the pair of Mourning doves, for the most part east of the Cascades natives, that frequent our backyard feeder. Marv has seen them at Crescent Lake on the south end of the Valley and is quick to add that a new avian visitor to the area is the Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), an interesting invasion of a non-indigenous species.

It is a small world, a world of coincidences, and today’s  visit to the Valley confirms it. The Collared-Doves have made an appearance in my hometown of Brewster, Washington. I first noticed one on a telephone pole by my mother’s house on the Columbia River two summers ago. The bird soon was a visitor at her feeder. Now in the still of the morning you can hear their irritating calls, so unlike the soothing lament of the Mourning dove, pretty much all over town.

The coincidences keep on coming. When I tell Marv about the dove at my mother’s home, he asks the location. “Brewster,” I reply, but before I can add my usual follow-up: “ About twenty-three miles north-east of Lake Chelan, ten miles downstream of Chief Joseph Dam,” Marv says he knows the area well. “Central Ferry Canyon,” he says. “Lots of interesting birds there.” I tell him Central Ferry Canyon is one of my favorite butterfly collecting sites and that my father is buried in a pioneer cemetery  at the top of the canyon. “Packwood,”says Marv. “I’ve been there a few times.” He asks my name again and I’m sure the reason is to bolster his memory. The next time he visits the area, I think, Marv will be sure to look in on Dad.

Dad loved birds. It is a comfort to know he rests in such a beautiful setting in the presence, according to Marv, of all three of the state’s nuthatches, Western bluebirds, a rare goshawk, and where, during the bleak Eastern Washington winters, a bevy of snow buntings forage for seeds.

(Footnote: a further coincidence. Yesterday a pair of Collared-Doves visited our backyard. They returned this morning and appear particularly interested in the juniper trees on the property line. I hope they don’t bully the gentle Mourning doves off the place. I hope they decide to move along. And I hope the summer dawns are not filled with their monotonous cooing.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Little Diversion—of an Avian Kind

Lord Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron and founder of the Scouting movement, observed thaTualco V. Marcht human beings rarely look up and therefore much that happens overhead escapes them. Of course it’s nearly impossible to look for roadside luck while at the same time keeping tabs on aerial incidents and phenomena.

On one of my strolls in the Valley I noticed white striping along the shoulder of the road on the stretch between the sharp turn east of Swiss Hall extending west to Sargent Road. Nearly pencil thin and about a foot long, the stripes were spray painted at right angles to the center line. The striping only appeared on the north side of Tualco under the power lines. After observing a half dozen or so, I realized the stripes were not random, the practice palette for some graffitist. The stripes appeared at regular spacings for a good quarter mile

Two or three days later, whether it was a flashback from my old Boy Scout days that lifted my gaze or a trumpeting swan commuting between cornfields, I couldn’t say, but I did look up. When I did, I noticed strange little tangles on the highline wires.installed diverters 

Ah, ha…how long have those been there?It was then I remembered those paint stripes along the shoulder of the road. I looked at the stripes, then up at the tangles. Sure enough, above each stripe was a doo-dad curled around the power line.

Sometime later I heard a news item about devices the Snohomish County PUD was installing to protect migrating birds from their highline wires. That was about the extent of the information, though.

Two weeks ago we made a trip to Snohomish on the old highway. A PUD work crew was stopping traffic along the soccer fields. While we waited for the flagger to motion us through, I noticed a lineman in a hi-lift bucket installing those same little curlicues. As we crept by, I rolled down the window and asked the flagger just what was going on. “Bird diverters,” he said. “We’re installing bird diverters.”

So what’s this “bird diverter” business, I wonder? How do the devices divert? What are they made of? How are they attached to the wires? Just how do they work, anyway? Plenty of questions to ask the ladies at our local PUD office when I go in to pay my monthly bill. But first I check the PUD’s website and find the “Bird Injury Incident Response” paragraph. According to the site twenty bird deaths associated with PUD power lines were reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009: “eight snow geese, four Trumpeter Swans, three Stellar’s Jays, two Bald Eagles, one Blue Heron, one hawk, and one starling” (??).

Anxious to find answers to my questions, I stop by and pay my bill early. “Is there someone here who can tell me about your bird diverter program?” I asked the gal who takes my money. She directs me to “J.D.,” a young fellow who has installed the diverters, and he tells me they are installed by use of a “hot stick,” which I take it is a device that lets linemen work on high voltage lines without frying themselves. I wonder if there are any diverters on site I can examine, maybe borrow to photograph. D.J. disappears into a back room and produces two diverters. The curlicues are made of plastic, heated and twisted, and come in two gauges, depending on the gauge of powerline they are affixed to. diverter coils One of the secretaries gives me the phone number of Rob Larson, the PUD’s spokesman for the diverter program.

Later that day I dial his number. Rob is happy to answer my questions and talk about PUD’s avian diversion program. The intent of the diverters is to give the power lines pigtailsdefinition, a higher profile, so low-flying birds can see the obstacles and not endup “clotheslined.”PUD installs the diverters in areas experiencing high bird traffic. The pigtails are staggered along the power lines at fifteen foot intervals (the distance between the stripes painted beneath the wires).

The past half dozen years an ever growing Trumpeter swan population uses Tualco Valley as a winter feeding ground. On some winter days hundreds of the large, white waterfowl gather in Werkhovens’ cornfields. The flight plan for their inter-cornfieldSwan flight commute is a north/south flight line which is bisected by the east/west power lines along the stretch of road mentioned earlier. The diverters have been installed on this stretch of Tualco.

Rob Larson told me the PUD is both pro-active and reactive with their bird diversion program. Established areas of high bird traffic in the proximity to highline wires receive diverters. Citizens call to report incidents of bird injury or electrocution and the PUD acts accordingly to protect the birds. Power poles and crossbars where eagles dare perch and risk electrocution are further insulated to protect the roosting birds. 

The avian diversion program is not foolproof, however. Birds fly in the fog—and our Valley is fogged in frequently on winter mornings—and like aircraft, low-flying fowl are apt to collide with obstacles in poor visibility situations. There have been incidents where flocks of feeding birds have been stampeded by hawks and eagles, and in their panic to escape, they fly headlong into highline wires. A birder I met in the Valley just happened to be on-site in the Skagit when an eagle on the hunt swooped down on a flock of snow geese. Although there were diverters in place, thirteen of the escaping birds flew headlong into the wires in follow-the-leader fashion, severing one of the wires and electrocuting themselves in the process.

Thanks to PUD’s D.J. and Rob Larson for their help with my questions. When I told Rob about a power pole in the Valley where I frequently see an adult Bald Eagle perched, he asked its location—even wondered if I could take him to the site. He was genuinely concerned about that eagle’s safety. (I emailed him a photo of the perched bird, and he said the pole did not look to be a safety hazard.) I could tell Rob takes personal pride in PUD’s avian diversion program, has done his research in that arena, and is a personal advocate for peaceful coexistence between birdlife and the delivery system set up to provide daily electricity to us all.

A flock of Trumpeter swans in flight is a spectacle of grace (less so when they “gaggle” on the ground), and if the diverter program saves one swan’s life or that of a hawk or eagle, being flagged to a stop for a few minutes while the diverters are being installed is worth the delay in my opinion.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

“In the Spring a Young Man’s Fancy…

Spring Clouds

These nights the frogs in the pond across road are in fine voice, chorusing their good vibrations. It is a nocturne that heralds spring. I am early into my walk when I see a pair of robins fussing with each other in a roadside maple tree. When three chase after one, I know what they are up to. This morning I’m afoot in the Valley of Love. And that is why I tread carefully through the Swiss Hall parking lot. Not only is love in the air, but on the ground as well. “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” Tennyson says in his poem “Locksley Hall” (l.26). This line comes to mind immediately when I see a discarded condom splayed in the parking lot gravel.

At this juncture an observation about words is in order. One must use them tactfully when broaching a delicate subject. I have chosen “discarded” instead of “used” because “discarded” seems less graphic, just as “nude” implies art, while “naked” means boldly unclothed. In keeping with the decorum I’ve set for this blog, I will post no photo. I will only say I approved of the color, a tasteful pink (now there’s some local Valley color for you). I have also intentionally avoided the phrase “gently used” as I can’t confirm this is factually accurate. Coupling the word “used” with “prophylactic,” a term I came across years ago in a news magazine article  entitled “Proselytizing for Prophylactics,” would not do the trick either.

Of course when I was a lad growing up in the ‘60’s, when the boys got together, we had our own jargon for such items. I don’t remember prophylactic or for that matter condom being among them. With my luck, had I used the “P” word in a request at the pharmacy counter in my small town, the druggist most likely would have handed me a toothbrush.

Now that I have launched this topic, allow me to loosen my grip on decorum to mention a passage from Clyde Rice’s memoir A Heaven in the Eye. While hiking a trail somewhere, the author happens upon a small cross along side “ a grave containing a [discarded] condom.” On the cross were inscribed the words, “The sap of trees holds the sap of Man.” Now that’s a clever use of words!

In my repertoire of jokes I have only one that addresses this topic. I’ll share it now. (There goes the decorum!) The joke uses the time-honored “farmer’s daughter” format, a genera that has spawned many a chuckle—and is therefore much in keeping with this Valley of farms.

The farmer’s daughter married the boy from the farm down the road, and the couple came to live at her house. After the wedding, the newlyweds quickly disappeared upstairs. For three days nothing was seen nor heard of them.

Concerned about their welfare, the farmer called from beneath his daughter’s bedroom window,”Is everything all right up there?”

“Yes, father, we are just fine,” came the reply.

“Well, aren’t you hungry? Have you had anything to eat?”asked the concerned father.

“Father, we are living on the fruits of love,”was the answer.

The farmer replied, “Well, could you please stop throwing the peelings out the window? They’re choking the ducks.”

Two or three years ago for about a month—this time of the year, it was—the little parking lot behind Swiss Hall served as a love nest. And why not? What a romantic site for eager Jack to bring his willing Jill. A pastoral prospect: a secluded spot among barren cornfields and pastureland just a few hundred yards from Werkhovens’ calf pens and the dairy’s manure pond, the mood of the moment enhanced by the pale glow of the corner street light. Future milk Let’s just say that as the nights of passion passed, the fruits of love accumulated to the point that the parking lot became a hazard for foot traffic. The place became less a place to park than retreaded gravel. 

I discussed the situation with my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L. We agreed that the spent love blossoms not only blighted the landscape but were also downright disgusting. We were at a loss for a remedy. One day Nancy L discovered a pile of junk mail discarded in the lot. Among the litter she found an address. She gathered up some of the litter, condoms included, packaged the works, enclosed a scathing indictment of the addressee’s foul behavior, and let the U.S. Postal Service deliver the soiled goods. Whether it was Nancy L’s stroke of genius or simply the cooling of passion, we’ll never know, but after her brash action, the accumulation of latex seemed to decline. After a few functions at Swiss Hall, vehicle traffic had pretty much ground away the last vestiges of amour. But today as I leave the fumes of love behind, I realize that Love, like Hope, springs eternal. I just wish it would pick up after itself.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Luckless in the Valley

Tualco V. March

I may have mentioned this in an earlier post: the WSDOT has an on-going project in front of our house. Please excuse the oversight if this is new information. It has been a pleasure to visit the Valley these days. So peaceful, serene, pastoral, bucolic: all of these and any other  placid superlatives in your vocabulary.  Apparently the 203 project is in hiatus. The “Green Meanies,”my designation for the TSI’s chartreuse clad workers, have either taken the day off or moved on down the road. I’m afraid their absence  is just temporary, the calm before the storm: Stage One Destruction finished; Stage Two Destruction about to drop the other shoe.

Imagine my surprise when I find more destruction along Tualco Road. I’m wondering if the County can read my mind. Yesterday I find a clump of clover with four, 4-leafers sprouting among the regulars (can you find them?). I thank my good fortune and realize that any day now the County mower will trim the right-of-ways and grind my roadside good luck to shreds. luck times 4 And I’ve only begun laying by my lucky cache for the season. As I walk south, it is obvious I have spurred the County into action. The right shoulder has been scalped from the intersection of Tualco and the state highway nearly to Ed’s house; two feet of roadside vegetation, a good two months’ worth of luck included, scraped  down to roadbed and hauled off somewhere in County trucks, my spring’s four-leaf bounty rudely dumped in some landfill. no more luck

I see Tony has a new “RV For Sale” sign. Yesterday I saw him returning from his mailbox and asked if he’s  had any interested parties stop by his “previously owned” RV lot to look the goods over, kick a tire or maybe a dual. “Not a one,” Tony said. “Have to wait for the weather to get better. I need a different sign.” This new signage is smaller than the old. And red lettering, Tony, make it a Red Letter message. Use broad brush strokes, too. Pitch the product! I also notice that the county dredger has flung mud all over the new sign, as if to dot a lot of “i’s.” Except there were no “i” spellings on the sign.

In Swiss Hall’s parking lot I find the mud slingin’ graffitists on lunch break. How they can calmly munch their sandwiches after all the morning’s destruction they have wrought is a puzzle to me.county lunchbreak  

Sure enough, on the return leg, there is nothing doing on the four-leaf front. My good luck has been scraped clean, clear down to Valley bottom land. I’m fortunate to have gathered the four good luck plants yesterday. Who knows when my luck will return?

Brett De Vries passes me in his green vintage  pick-up and waves. I’m just passing the Streutker homestead where Brett lives when he rushes out the door to have a chat. He has a corn question. Tina Streutker, former matriarch of the place, told him that he would have better corn production if he planted his rows in a north/south orientation instead of his usual east/west configuration. (Last year, a good one for corn, his corn crop was a dismal failure.) Tina had told him to consult with me on the matter. I always use the north/south planting  myself, but do so because of my garden plot, not because of any inside information about corn plantings relative to solar exposure. I shared that fact with Brett. Also told him the Werkhovens’ field corn was planted in circles: from field perimeter to field center, which offered sun to all stalks at sometime during the summer day. Werkhovens’ consistently have an impressive stand of corn year after year, but maybe it’s the “organic” they pump back into the fields.

I don’t know whether my brief corn seminar was helpful, but Brett did learn about hominy. He had never heard of hominy before, never seen it, did not know such a thing existed. Not until I asked him if he knew what corn nuts were, did he have any concept of hominy. I explained the procedure for processing field corn (dent corn) into hominy, the boiling in lye, the rinsing,  the processing…. For a wannabe farm boy, Brett has some education ahead of him.

And on my walk, I learn something, too. A TSI surveyor has traffic cones set up on the centerline of the State Highway. He has pulled aside a plug covering something and is sponging out the rainwater.  I asked him if he’s lost anything. He says that he’s checking the GPS coordinates from prior surveys, something that has to do with the parameters of the on-site turn lane project. I have seen these small metal plates out in the Valley (there is one just north of the upper Loop Bridge over Riley Slough; I have jolted Gladys a time or two riding over it). These lids are what you see in towns and cities covering water meters and such. I had no idea why they were present in a Valley where residents get their water from wells.

I stop by Breezy Blends Espresso. Linnea said business was dead, thanks to the TSI Green Meanies and the $&%$#!!. I want to do my part, so I order the regular, and cloverless but a wee bit wiser, I  sip my way  home.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Boom at High Noon

Tualco V. March

When I was a boy growing up along the Columbia River, whistles were a fact of everyday life. Our playground was thousands of acres of sagebrush flats, wheat fields, and rock piles. We were allowed to roam far and wide—as far as we could stray and yet be home in time for dinner. Whistle blasts called us to the house. My mother had an old-fashioned, two-barreled metal whistle on a chain. When it came time to summon us home, she would step out on the front porch of our house by the river and deliver a few hearty blasts that would put a steam locomotive to shame. Each of us children had our own whistle call. I, the eldest child, owned one solitary toot. Sister Claudia, two. Brothers Tim and Kevin, three and four respectively. Five blasts ordered us all scurrying home. Regardless if we were in the next township—that sound traveled for miles, it seemed-- when we heard the plaintive call of the whistle, we stopped in our tracks and began to count.  As a group or somewhere by ourselves, we marked off the blasts that drifted up from the river and knew which of us was summoned or if all were to come.

Years later when I left the fields of play and became a working stiff in the orchards that surrounded the house on the river, my days were marked by another whistle. Martha’s Mill, the source, (the business belonged to Martha Gamble), was the town’s sawmill. Pine saw logs from the Gamble woods were trucked to the mill to be sawn into lumber. The mill workers began the work day with the seven o’clock steam whistle; noon and the lunch hour began with another  toot; and at five o’clock the last shrill blast signaled another day, another dollar…a day closer to the weekend. Though the mill was three or four miles east of our thinning ladders or pruning tools, its whistle delineated our day, too: the morning whistle sent us to the crew truck for the ride to our work; the noon whistle signaled the ride back to camp and lunch; the five o’clock blast, dinner and an evening of rest. In those days shrill blasts of air directed our days.

As Gladys and I chug along the lower Loop Road, a rattling report rocks the Valley, and I think about those whistle blasts of years gone by. I  haven’t worn a watch in years but know instantly what time it is: 12 o’clock, high noon, signaled by Cadman’s one per day only “fire in the hole” explosion. By the time I hear the report, dust is already 100 feet in the air. Cadman blastSound is a funny thing: it always lags the visual fact. I used to marvel at the ax stroke a worker took at a tree stump in the orchard far below my high hill vantage point. When the whack on wood reached me, the axman’s blade was raised on high for another stroke. The speed of sound is a sluggard compared to light speed.

Cadman’s high noon blast reminds me of our local action group, The People for the Preservation of Tualco Valley. I haven’t heard a peep from them in years. The People for Preservation were one of those after the fact organizers who move into the vicinity of a long established business and immediately begin protesting its work routines and operations—rather like those people who moved into the flight path of commercial jets at Sea-Tac International and then screamed “foul” when the airport proposes a third runway.

When it was in its infancy, I attended one of the first meetings of The People for the Preservation of Tualco Valley. The meeting was held at a member’s home near the rock quarry, so far out in the sticks one would have to go towards town just to go hunting. Here my memory fails me about the substance of the meeting. I do know I agreed to be added to the mailing list of other concerned parties in the Valley. For the next several years we received regular updates on the status of the People for the Preservation of Tualco Valley vs. Cadman, may even have contributed to their legal fund. I do remember the company proposed an expansion of its pit, the construction of an asphalt plant, and a doubling of truck traffic in and out of their facility and filed for an environmental impact study. I also know that “harvesting” of rock from the quarry resulted in a burst aquifer, the consequences of which were new ponds, swamps and marshes in the valley below the quarry’s operation. I do believe that the small action group confronted an international corporation and curtailed an expansion that would have impacted all who use the Valley. And Cadman’s grand plans—at least for now—have been mitigated to a midday jolt.

The current recession has pretty much stifled Cadman’s activity; only a few gravel and cement trucks trickle out of the site each day. But when the windows rattle and the floors shake here in the Valley, it is twelve o’clock high. Set your clocks and watches accordingly. 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Gladys and Mari Butt Heads…

Gladys and I took our chances on headwinds today and headed out in the Valley about noon. Construction work was in full swing in front of the house, and we had to slalom our way in and out of traffic cones, barrels, and oncoming traffic.

Not the bluster we encountered yesterday: wind calm to the point that a pair of young duffers were teeing it up at the Sky Valley Driving Range. Judging by the white spots dotting the green, business is on the upswing (no pun intended). Driving RangeAt Willie Green’s Organic Farm we turn right. I want to see what’s going on with a couple of landscaping projects I can see from the blacktop. They are water features and in this Valley of floods, what can another water feature or two hurt? One project is complete, fountain spouting from a nicely landscaped pool. The plantings lend an alpine feel to the surround: stunted firs one might find growing next to a mountain pool. Willie's FountainThe second feature, closer to the road, is still under construction. When Willie turns on the faucet, I will post additional photos.

Gladys and I turn right off Tualco and head for home. At this point Gladys became confused. On SR 203 she steered clear of the cone-line southbound lane to avoid the southbound traffic and chose the safety of the shoulder INSIDE the traffic barrels. Oh, Gladys—big mistake. Two hundred feet or so closer to home and we encounter Mari, a pintsize littler gofer for Tri-State International, DOT’s contractor for the turn lane project. Mari is waving us off the shoulder and into traffic. She blocks our progress and delivers an ultimatum: WE CAN’T RIDE ON THE SHOULDER; WE MUST USE THE CAR LANE. Now Gladys probably has ten pounds on Mari and is nearly as tall, and I feel a fracas brewing. Fortunately I am there to intercede and a “chick fight” is averted. I direct her slowly out into traffic at “OUR OWN RISK.” My high-spirited mount and I arrive safely at the driveway. But I couldn’t help but notice as I rolled Gladys into the garage, her reflector was glowing a bright red!Gladys TSI Mari

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Blown to a Standstill…

Spring snows

Just enough breeze to tremble a few twigs this Easter  morning, nothing to prevent Gladys and me from making a Valley run for the first time in days. Or so I thought. As we make the turn by the old MaGee homestead, I notice the effects of our recent spring storm lingering on the mountains to the northeast. Mt. Pilchuck looks like it has been heavily sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, and the peaks to the east glisten with new snow. I hope some of the stuff disappears by next weekend when we have scheduled our first trip of the year east of the mountains.

As I head south toward the prospect of Mt. Ranier, the wind comes up out of nowhere. Gladys and I assume a defensive posture, but down by Gramma Frohning’s the breeze stiffens, skimming across the Sky Valley Driving Range, and nearly slams us to a stop.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, I’ve heard, and as I pump the pedals hard, the wind counters my efforts. This stiff breeze takes me completely by surprise. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I make a point to keep Gladys garaged when the Valley winds howl. For the first time ever I seriously think of dismounting and leading Gladys into the lee of this gale. Shifting into third gear would be to admit defeat. I know if I can tough it out for another five hundred yards, I will begin the homeward leg and have the wind at my back. Until then I peddle away, legs complaining all the while.

I make the left hand turn, running the stop sign, as I routinely do, hope for some thigh relief. Perched on the power line overhead I notice a female American kestrel—sparrow hawks, we used to call them. Lately I have seen her and her mate along this same stretch of road. This morning she is on the hunt alone and faces into the wind toward the Cambodians’ flower fields. I expect her to fly as she usually does when I pedal beneath her, but she stays put. I’m sure that sometime soon it will be vernal interruptus for some unsuspecting mouse or small bird at play among the daffodils and tulips.

The American kestrel, Falco sparverius, is North America’s smallest hawk, but that aside, it is every bit the hunter its larger cousins are. The little hunter swoops upon its prey from above; sometimes it hovers helicopter-like above a victim, then drops like a stone for the capture. It is not unusual to see one perched on a power line, the slender tail of some unfortunate field mouse dangling from its talons. One winter day I noticed small clouds of feathers drifting from the top of our walnut tree: the cause, a kestrel getting down to business ( “down” from  businsess?), plucking the fluff away from its meal—a songbird’s song forever stilled.

Gladys and I had it much easier on the return trip, but still I had quite a tingle in my legs for some minutes afterwards. Just glad I didn’t have to push the Ol’ Gal home.

On this Easter morning Trecia received the traditional Christian message from her cousin Sue in Wisconsin: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!” which immediately put me in mind of a bit of Lutheran humor Garrison Keillor shares in a Lake Woebegon anecdote. The author tells of one Easter Sunday when the young “with it” priest Father Todd was called to substitute for Our Lady’s old priest, Father Emil,  who was suffering from a bad case of hay fever. Father Todd presided over the Easter sunrise vigil for Catholic youth wearing a T-shirt “With a picture of Our Lord on water skis that said, ‘He’s Up!’”  

After Gladys and I did battle with the Valley winds and returned home, I spotted a perky little cottontail (an Easter bunny) nosing about our wood pile. A bit later I walked out to hunt for the eggs but found not a single one. The wind must have whisked them away. Happy Easter.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Rural Route Rant…

Tualco Valley

High winds blasted the Valley yesterday and last night. They have flagged somewhat, but on this morning’s walk in the Valley I’m reminded of John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever,” the 3rd stanza line “…where the wind’s like a whetted knife.” And it knifes its way across the straight stretch of road toward Dead Man’s Curve on this unseasonably cold April morning, the third day of the month. I wonder what the chill factor computes with these two variables: temperature 42 degrees; wind speed 27 mph. Cold enough for this walker to tug down his wool hat frequently. The National Weather Service has a revamped wind chill chart where, in the warmth of your home, you can compute how long it will take your facial extremities to frost up if you venture out in the weather. The new chart factors in temperature and wind speed and body heat transfer for faces five feet above the ground (instead of the old chart’s thirty-three foot anemometer height; anemometers don’t experience frostbite). My face is one foot higher than the average face, so I imagine at nose level, my nose is a tad bit colder than the five foot person’s nose. The drip factor’s a tad bit more, too.

But this morning I’m hot under the collar, so the chill factor (31 point something degrees, allowing for my height), I hardly notice. My preoccupation unfortunatelymuddy mess these days is the turn lane project in front of the house.  The destruction has progressed to the point that the targeted landscape resembles the trench warfare from a WWI novel. The latest development that has me steamed (wonder if the NWS has an aggravation chart…) is our mailbox issue.Marianna Trench 

November 18 of ‘09, we received an informational letter from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT, DOT, or #%&*%!!). Paragraph two stated: “During construction, your existing mailbox will need to be relocated. WSDOT [#%&*%!!]or its agents will complete the relocation. We will also be replacing the mailbox supports with a breakaway feature. This feature is a safety improvement that will lessen vehicular damage and risk of bodily injury,[sic] if a vehicle hits the mailbox.” Thursday Tom, a supervisor for the subcontractor TSI, informed me that relocating the mailbox was imminent. At this point the U. S. Postal Service (insert favorite epithet here) enters the picture. You remember that quaint saying about “neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor chill factor…” and the U. S. Postal Service? Apparently that creed rode off into the sunset with the Pony Express. Tom had been weaving his way through the Postal Service red tape starting with the local postmaster who informed him that any temporary arrangements would have to be ok’d by the route carrier. Tom located same and ran the problem by him. The temporary fix was to have the three mailboxes affected relocated on the property at the northeast corner of Tualco and 203;  Beebes, the owners of said property, had agreed to the temporary arrangement.

The idea of having my personal mail delivered to an unsupervised, random site a quarter of a mile away for a day, week or a month was out of the question.   Option number two: relocate the mailbox off the right-of-way at the side of our driveway. Carrier could turn into our driveway, insert mail in relocated box, turn around in driveway and continue on his route. Tom …well, he’d have to run this option by the carrier; if the situation was disagreeable to him, the carrier was not obligated to deliver our mail (regardless of weather).

Today I stopped by the post office to mail a package just as the route carriers happened to be loading the day’s mail for delivery. When I told one of the carriers my problem, she directed me to the rear of the post office where I could ring for assistance. I was admitted and directed to our own personal carrier. Peter is his name. Peter recognized me immediately as the Valley denizen he passes frequently either walking or struggling along on his bike. We have been on “friendly waves” terms for a couple of years now. In the presence of another postal worker I explained the problem to Peter. Peter had met Tom and knew of the problem. He said, “I will deliver the mail to his (my) house; I like him…just kidding.” And he was, apparently, because when I mentioned the temporary driveway plan, Peter was non-committal. Regulations require rural route drivers, once en route, to maintain “forward progress”: they are not allowed to back up. Peter would have to shift the Taurus into reverse once, back up, and then make the turn out of our driveway. Now he has done this a number of times, just recently to deliver a certified letter, in fact. But he was not willing to admit this infraction in the company of a colleague.

Today Peter delivered our mail  to the same spot it has been delivered for thirty-five years. We’ll see what happens come Monday.

And concerning that “breakaway” safety feature of WSDOT’s state of the art mailbox stanchion…if some irresponsible, careless, inconsiderate driver runs into my mailbox(as several have over the years; no personal injury that I know of; considerable emotional injury on my part, though), I want that post to make a mark, tear a bumper, crumple a quarter panel,or put a bump on someone’s nose. I should have Ed Broer construct me a new stanchion. The one supporting his mailbox could upend a Mack truck should its inattentive driver run into it

Ah, the WSDOT and the U. S. Postal Service: as Jonathan Swift said, “a confederacy of dunces.”  Email is looking better all the time.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

There’s No Fool like an Old Fool…

I think to myself as I walk in the Valley onTualco V. March All Fool’s Day. And I think it of myself, too, especially as I’m walking in a gentle rain, April’s first shower. This morning I remembered to creep up on the kitchen sink cautiously like a cat stalks a bird. On this day of the year, more times than I’m willing to admit, I have proved the Fool before the kitchen sink. I turn on the faucet to fill the coffee pot and receive a cold drenching from the spray nozzle. Some jokester in the household has taped the squeeze grip open and directed it at the first fool who turns on the water. “April Fools!” There’s no fool like a wet fool, either.

When I taught school, on the days April 1 fell on a school day, I had to be ever vigilant for the thumb tack on my chair, chalk in my coffee, or some other student hatched outrage. One April Fool’s Day, I made the mistake of leaving my 8th Grade AP class by themselves for a moment. I returned to the classroom and was momentarily disoriented. In my absence the kids had reversed all their desks, making the rear of the room the head of the class. And then there was the school newsletter fraught with grammatical blunders and misspellings I found in my mailbox about this time of the year. Apparently I was the only staff member who received one. Ah, to be made sport of by the secretarial staff!

I probably deserved to be the drenched fool and the butt of these pranks, a comeuppance of sorts for my own little shenanigans on some of the good Valley people. Most of these mischiefs befell my good-natured friends Jerald and Tina Streutker. There was the time I topped off their roadside iris row with gladiolus. I particularly enjoyed pranking Goosie, the concrete goose Streutkers brought back from the midwest. Tina would dress it accordingly per season or holiday. I called it “The Goose for all Seasons.”Aloha Goosie There was Aloha Goosie posing beside a pineapple that mysterioBee Goosieusly appeared at her side; bee Goosie received a nice jar of wildflower honey; and sprouting among her basket of eggs, Easter Bonnet Goosie discovered several golf balls that were somehow spirited there from the Sky Valley DrivinE.Bonnet Goosieg Range.  

I will explain in a later post how a fully decorated miniature Christmas tree strangely appeared next to a mole mound on Tony Broer’s pristine lawn (pristine,that is, until the moles decided to move in and share Christmas).

The biggest April Fool’s hoax of all time was perpetrated by the BBC in 1957 and fooled the people of an entire nation. The “mockumentary” showed young women in native costume working in the annual spaghetti harvest. The young harvesters were shown in a “spaghetti grove” pulling limp strands of pasta from trees and shrubs and depositing them in wicker baskets. Hardly had the broadcast aired than the BBC was inundated by calls—viewers calling to set the station straight on the true source of spaghetti and many others thanking the BBC for such an educational program; prior to the show, they had no idea where spaghetti came from. That a broadcasting company could fool an entire country, I guess ,was possible because the Brits had only but recently been introduced to the dish.

So as you go about your daily routine on this, the First of April, remember: when fools rush in, they get drenched at the kitchen sink. But these days thanks to the advice of George W. Bush,  our forty-third president,  I’m a wiser man: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says ‘Fool me once, shame on you…shame on you. Fool me….you can’t be fooled again.”

Like I said, “There’s no fool like an old fool.” And on this day, I wish luck to you all. Can you find the luck in this photo?Clover park

(I couldn’t either. Looks like a regular roadside clover patch to me. “April Fools!”)