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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Post Script on a Post Op….

Bob Post-op

I had not heard from Bob since last Sunday night when I gave him a lift home after his surgery to repair a badly fractured collarbone. In this day and age of helter skelter lives and the advent of stress, folks are more reluctant than ever to “get involved.” (Let me qualify that in Bob’s case: while we assisted the fallen cyclist, perhaps a half dozen motorists stopped to ask if they could lend a helping hand.) I was not sure I wanted to become more involved in Bob’s affairs and misadventure than I already was, and so I did not bother to ask for his cell phone number (his only means of communication). His bike had been secured safely in our garage waiting to be retrieved.

Yesterday Bob and a neighbor stopped by to pick up the bike. Bob looked pretty much the same as he did when I left him, arm in a sling, his surgery dressing partially visible beyond the collar of his t-shirt. When I asked him if he was able to fill his pain medication prescription, he said, “No, I didn’t go pick it up.” “What about the pain?” I asked. “It’s been pretty intense, especially last night.” It’s been an ibuprofen routine for Bob since the surgery: three tablets every four hours. Bob said the tablets worked pretty well for the first hour. I asked him if the dressing had been changed since Sunday. “No,” he said. “The doctor gave me some post-op instructions, but I couldn’t do them by myself.” For four days he had done nothing  to make himself more comfortable or insure the surgical site was clean and free of post-op infection. I noticed his little late model Ford station wagon was a stick-shift; Bob had to shift with his good hand, steer with his good arm when he needed to get behind the wheel. I was relieved to learn he’d scheduled a Dr.’s visit for this afternoon.

But all of this seemed a secondary interest to the Sarge. His main concern was the condition of his bike. He checked it thoroughly fore and aft: if the wheels tracked straight; if the shifting mechanism functioned to transfer the chain from sprocket to

Checking his ride

sprocket. Bob checked the seat (which he had customized to fit his spare posterior). Checked the pedal action, the tension of the spokes,  damage to the fork, noted all the scratches, dents, closely examined the entire machine for any other accident-caused blemishes. He went over his ride like a one-man pit crew for the Tour de France, even showed me the gash in his helmet, the spot where his head struck the pavement. Bob pointed to the dented helmet and said, “ But for this, now I’d be sitting in a nursing home somewhere with drool running down my chin.” Bob noted a slight skew to the front wheel. “The rim’s bent,” he said. “Well, I have another wheel at home.”

Home? Sunday night I discovered what “home” meant for Bob: a considerably more than “gently used” camper, and a small one at that (no sleeping compartment), surrounded by the hulks and heaps of mildewed aluminum homesteads that had probably once sat on wooden wheels. “Three Rivers Mobile Home Park,” harkened back to the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. It was a Spartan existence Bob lived, in an ambience that Spartans, I’m sure, would have considered spartanly extreme. I will defer further description out of courtesy to Bob (nor will I post the photos I took of his “Home, Sweet, Home), but the thought that he lived a life as lean and spare as he himself (127 pounds, 5’ 6”), yet owned a bicycle worth at least two, perhaps three K, gave me some pause, I have to admit.

Upon hearing of Bob’s plight, my daughter, an empathetic and compassionate young lady, took it upon herself to research the kinds of assistance a sixty-one year old former service man (U.S. Navy) with no health insurance and a busted collarbone could fall back on should his situation require it. She contacted the Snohomish County Senior Citizen Assistance program and learned of several services Bob might avail himself of should he choose to do so.

The informational packet arrived in yesterday’s mail. Around ten a.m. this morning I hand delivered the packet to the trailer park and Bob’s camper. He answered my knock and I handed him the packet, which he opened immediately. I had included a personal note in case I found no one at home, apologized  for “meddling,” but had done so only out of my concern for him and his situation. I was relieved when he said, “You’re not meddling; I appreciate your help but I’m not a senior citizen.” “Well……..,” I said, and nodded an affirmative. I told himI had forgotten to hand him the material the day he stopped by for the bike and to feel free to do what he wished with the material. “I’m pretty independent,” he remarked. Yes, I thought, but  “independent”  don’t chase away the pain.

We stepped outside into the pungent smell of cat  feces and urine. “Let me shut the door,” Bob said. “I don’t want the mosquitoes to get in.” We discussed the invention he has staked his scant bankroll on: a sensor that measures tolerances to micro-distances, one he hopes to peddle to the airline industry. “If it ‘flies,’” he said, “I’ll be able to buy my own jet!”The testing phase begins in Lynnwood next week .

The mosquitoes had discovered us by now, droning  away as they maneuvered to slip in under our tolerances. A dog tethered to the trailer next door yapped incessantly. I heard a shout, not a gleeful shout, but angry, tinged with a frustration bordering on….despair, perhaps? “Good luck with the sensor,” I said. “Life’s like an elevator,” Bob replied and smiled his Spartan smile: “Sometimes it takes you up; other times you get the shaft.” I shook his hand, glanced at his bandaged shoulder, once more at the dilapidated little camper that was his present life, and as I returned to my truck, weaving my way carefully between the sand-encrusted piles of cat droppings, I felt I pretty much knew where Bob’s next elevator ride would take him.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Valley at Stud



Now that title grabbed your attention, didn’t it? And, no, it’s not a cheap dodge to get you to read this post…nothing like John Gierach’s Sex, Death, and Flyfishing. (I wonder how many readers rushed to buy Gierach’s book for the “sex,” only to discover the author used the subject in the context of the natural history of the mayfly?) Sorry to disappoint--the subject of this post is zucchini, but now that you’ve read this far, you may as well suffer through the rest.

The other day I answered the door to admit my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L. A little plastic bucket dangled from her hand. The bucket contained a clippers and a soft-bristled artist’s paintbrush. Ah, ha! I know what she’s up to this morning: a little vegetable sex, zucchini sex, to be specific. This mission is a repeat of last year’s, and I’m wondering what’s going on with my friend’s squash. Is she using Amazonian seed, seed that excludes anything male, like the warrior women of myth? Does her zucchini belong to some secret female society, the seeds of which sprung from the Isle of Lesbos? Whatever the case, Nancy L fears a dearth of zucchini, something that has never happened in my garden. Even early into the zucchini season, I’m wishing my plants would practice a little abstinence.

Zucchini is a monoecious plant: each bush produces both male and female blossoms—at least mine do. Nancy’s, on the other hand, seem female profuse; the men are no shows.


female zuke

What she has brought with her in the bucket is zucchini sex paraphernalia: she plans to snip a few male blossoms from my plants, take them home to the female blossoms and gently paintbrush the ladies with the male stuff. Without this special masculine pixie dust the female nubbins will show promise at first but then turn yellow, shrivel, and rot. There would be no zucchini bread in the Parker household this year. No zucchini relish. No steamed, baked, sauteed, fried, stuffed or salad-sliced zucchini either. Nancy is here to prevent a zucchini catastrophe.

We go out to the zucchini patch. It is midmorning and the blossoms are still fresh, haven’t begun their midday, early afternoon wilt. We find two or three male blossoms.male zuke They beckon to Nancy: “Take me! No, take me! I’m your man! Bring on the ladies!” Nancy enjoys being the matchmaker, selects a couple promising gents, snips them from their stalks. She pops them into the bucket. With a hasty “thanks,” she hurries off.  Nancy is anxious to perform a little artificial insemination in her own patch, bring home the grooms; she must rush home quickly before the ardor cools.

You’re more than welcome, Nancy L. Feel free to visit my zucchini plants here in the Valley anytime, a Valley where men are men—and women too! Well,  at least where zucchini are concerned, .

Monday, July 26, 2010

No Cryin’ on Bob’s Shoulder…Not for Awhile Anyway….

Sargent Bob

This a far different post than I had intended to write about my friend Bob, a fellow Valley walker and cycler. Most of our meetings, Bob was afoot, and I was on Gladys;  our walking routes did not overlap. I called him “Sargent Bob” because he lived somewhere up Sargent Road north of the Loop Road. If I hadn’t seen him in a while, I would stop for an update, chat about the Valley happenings. Whenever I was on Gladys, Bob would give me advice about bicycle safety: “You need to get a helmet and wear it!” he warned. Bob felt free to share other advice with me,too: how I needed to adjust Gladys’s seat so I wouldn’t “blow my knees out”; how to trim my food intake (I had complained about all the Christmas baked goods…) so I could shed some weight. “You have the rest of your life, you know,” Bob would say. “At our ages we need to do what we can to insure quality of life. I eat to live,” he’d say, “not the other way around.”

I only have one photo of Bob because for some reason he was camera shy. I snapped the shutter quickly one day when we met at Frohning Road. He had stopped to investigate a bike someone had dumped or discarded in the weeds along side the road (turned out it was Timmy Lee Frohning’s transportation to and from the bus stop on school days). For all I know, the above photo may be the only one taken of Bob. Like the Sioux chief Crazy Horse perhaps he thought the camera might steal his spirit. All I know is he was pretty strong-willed about a lot of things.

I hadn’t seen Bob in the Valley for quite some time. But through a bizarre intercession of Fate, we met yesterday morning. A beautiful morning it was, too: clear blue skies, lots of sunshine melting away the Valley mist. A good morning to share with Gladys before the day heated up.

As I rounded the corner headed south, Mt. Ranier loomed ahead like a huge ice cream sundae. “What a great photo opportunity,” I thought, and planned to extend my ride past the old Honor Farm and Werkhovens’ digester to my favorite prospect of the mountain. I believe it was this decision and at this point where Fate started building its case against Bob and me.

Just as I reached my photo station, Fate stepped up the pace and drew in my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L. She was on her way to Church this Sunday morning. When she saw me,  Nancy pulled off on the shoulder to chat for a minute or two. We had hardly exchanged greetings, when she said, “Here comes a bicycle” and she edged her car forward a bit further onto the shoulder. I looked up in time to see a cyclist tooling toward us, going flat out. I told Nancy L he better not make sport of Gladys. At that moment I realized he was heading straight for us on a collision course. And here Fate dealt the coup-de-grace. In disbelief I thought: “He’s looking down at the road. HE DOES NOT SEE US!” I didn’t even have enough time to shout a warning. I thought the cyclist at the last moment would swing to the left around Nancy’s car, but instead he plowed between us on the right, narrowly missing me (and the back of Nancy’s car; Fate momentarily blinked) and sent Gladys flying into the weeds. And then just beyond Nancy’s car there was the eerie sound of scraping metal, the awful thud of body on pavement. I rushed to the scene and lying among the tangle of metal, Spandex, shattered water bottles I am shocked to find Sargent Bob. The Sarge is down in the dust and not moving.

By this time Nancy L is out of her car and beside us. A pick-up stops and the driver asks if he should call for aid. Bob sits up. He is dazed, doesn’t know what’s going on until he hears “aid/hospital/emergency room.” That seems to bring him around some. Bob whispers he can’t go, doesn’t have insurance. Another motorist stops to render assistance. He seems to know first responder procedure, moves his finger back and forth in front of Bob’s eyes, asks him to follow his finger. We note Bob has an unusual knob protruding from his left shoulder about two inches left of his neck. That cinches it. Its the ER for Sarge.(“You have the rest of your life, remember?”) Nancy L drives me home for the truck while the Good Samaritan first responder stays behind with Bob. I return with the truck. We load the bikes in the back, and Bob, amid protests of no insurance, in the front, and head for the ER in Monroe.

At the ER a nurse checks Bob’s vitals. Except for that shoulder, he is in tip top shape( all that exercise and the “I eat to live” philosophy paying dividends). Then x-rays of the shoulder and a visit from the on-call orthopedist. The x-ray shows a broken clavicle. It’s a bad break, the bone has snapped near his neck, thrust upwards, and the longer section compressed under the shorter. As the bone has penetrated flesh and tissue, surgery will be required to disinfect the wound. Then the break must be plated and and the collarbone pinned—perhaps wired-- back together. Bob repeats his oft-used litany of the morning: “Well, this day sucks!” I stay with him until he’s prepped for surgery, leave my phone number so he can contact me later. At this point he seems to have no one to assist him but me. I am glad to do so. Can’t help but feel I was in some way Fate’s helpmate in his plight.

Around three o’clock in the afternoon Bob calls. The operation is over; he is in recovery, thinks he will be released that evening. That’s highly unlikely I thought. But I was wrong. Bob was released at 7:30 last evening. I meet him at the nurses’ station in the ER. His arm is in a sling. A big wad of dressing like a football player’s shoulder pad bulges at the point of surgery. He can’t wait to leave. We walk to the truck. “Well, this day sucks!” he reiterates. It’s about 8:15 when I deliver him to his camper at Three Rivers Mobile Home park. I help him dump a bag of ice into his refrigerator, tell him to take the ibuprofen every four hours as the Dr. advised until he can pick up the pain medicine prescribed him. I wish him good-luck and tell him his bike will be safely secured in our garage until he’s ready to retrieve it.

I haven’t heard from the Sarge this morning. I can only imagine that last night “sucked” for him, as well. As I reflect on yesterday’s incident, I am bewildered at the irony of it all: how three people who know each other from the Valley (Nancy L, like me, has seen Bob on his Valley walks countless time), can meet at the same time and place with such dire consequences. But Fate plays no favorites, is relentless.Yesterday it showed no regard for metal or flesh and bone. Bob’s hi-tech bike has a warped front wheel; Gladys suffered a bent rear fender(she’s one tough cookie and most certainly will roll again); Bob’s summer of cycling the Valley has come to an abrupt end and Nancy L and I are bit shaken emotionally. Yesterday’s incident reminds me it’s high time I visited the local bike shop. If I may borrow my hapless friend’s phraseology: “Fate sucks.” Why tempt it more by not wearing a helmet?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Send us a Letter; Better yet, Make that a Check….


The “Have we got mail?” siege is over. In the matter of 18126 SR. 203 vs. WSDOT and the U.mailboxS. Postal Service, I’m happy to say 18126 SR 203 has prevailed. No shots fired; no fists thrown; no blood spilled. And except for a sporadic barrage of sarcasm now and then, I was able to weather the siege with a minimum of vituperative language.

For nearly a month our mailbox stood tall, proud and empty as pictured. On June 24 Vinnie of TSI yanked it out for pavers to access the shoulder, and there it sat until yesterday. A letter from WSDOT sent last November informed us “WSDOT or their agents”  would relocate and reinstall our mailbox on a new “breakaway” stanchion. We were told this would happen sometime during the construction project between February and October of this year.

When Vinnie pulled the mailbox, the Postal Service abruptly ceased our rural route delivery. Didn’t inform us. Not even a note or a phone call. For three days we had no idea what had happened to our mail: where it was; if we had any. Thus began a month’s worth of episodes of “Where’s Our Mail Today?” Sometimes it would be at the post office; other times we were told our carrier would try to thread his way through construction and deliver our mail, only to get a call later in the day to inform us our mail was there; we could come in (a second trip) and collect it. Now added to our weekly routine was the chore of stopping at the post office every two or three days to get our letters, bills, magazines, (one Government check), and junk mail. After waiting in line for five to ten minutes for a postal worker’s service, you’d request your mail, and huffily be asked to produce your ID. Then there’d be a scowl and shrug of the shoulders to let you know what an imposition it was for her to climb down off the Government gravy train long enough to shuffle a hundred  feet to the backroom where our mail was ensconced and shuffle the long way back with the two or three day accumulation.

And this could continue into October?? Nuhh uhhh! I fired off an email to Ms. Lorena Eng, WSDOT’s Northwest Region Administrator. (Ms. Eng and I became acquainted last April through the kind intercession of our State Senator Val Stevens. The Honorable Senator forwarded my concerns about the SR 203 turn lane project to Ms. Eng. Lorena then addressed my concerns--albeit AFTER THE FACT.) The paving was done, I told her, the striping completed, the hi-tech breakaway signage installed….Certainly WSDOT didn’t intend for our mailbox to stand bereft and abandoned until October?

An hour and a half later (coincidence, do you think?), I look down the driveway to see four day-glo-vested workers circling our stranded mailbox like it was a Maypole and they were bringing in the May. When they saw me, one of them spun off the circle and walked up the driveway to meet me. It’s good to see my old friend Tom, Tri-State International’s project supervisor. Tom of TSIIt’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to share my insights for the turn lane project. He’s here, he tells me, to save the day—or at least help restore our mail service. We walk to the shoulder where Mr. Robert Wofford, DOT’s Project Manager, is poring over one of three WSDOT print outs  containing detailed specifications for mailbox installation. I take a peek myself at what appeared to be the specs for the landing gear of a 737 jet (well, a 707, perhaps).


Malibox specsRobert scratches his head over the handful of dimensions, a draftsman’s masterpiece of lines, arrows, figures. From this marvel of DOT guidelines, Robert concludes that the base of the mailbox must be thirty-nine inches (39”) above pavement and  twenty-eight inches (28”) from pavement’s edge. Given these parameters, I learn I have the final say in how far down the road from our driveway I want the mailbox placed. I decide, and at that location Robert sprays the asphalt with a white arrow . Tomorrow they’ll return with regulation hardware and that special breakaway stanchion. Tomorrow I’ll be back in business, they tell me. Yeah, right. “The check’s in the mail” seemed the appropriate context here.

Yesterday I quickly ran the morning’s errands in town (even stopped by the post office for my morning’s ration of huffiness); I wanted to be on hand for the installation ceremony. Around 11:30 a.m.,  halfway through my trimming the arbor vitae hedge, Tom’s gray truck rolled into the driveway. About the same time a second pickup pulled up on the shoulder. What followed reminded me a good deal of the old joke: “How many (insert ethnic group here) does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Now I have replaced many a sheared off 4’x 4’ post and mailbox platform over the years, done it myself, found it to be a job one man could handle quite easily. How many  people does it take to install a mailbox using WSDOT’s specs and hardware? Four…three men and one comely young lady (cute, even with the hard hat). Throw into the mix one can of energy drink.TSI energy How long does it take a crew of four to set a mailbox? (It was nigh on one o’clock when I went in for lunch.) What’s the entertainment value  four TSI workers can provide in an hour and a half? Priceless!

I could tell by the new shovels the workers brandished, my mailbox project had been assigned top priority. When I commented on this, one stopped shoveling and asked me how I could tell new shovels from well-used. “Aside from the fact the ad stickers How many does it take to... are still on the blades?” I laughed. “Look,” said the stocky TSI shoveler and pointed to round tip of the wooden handle. “It’s still round, not worn flat by my leaning on it!”Just a little sample of that priceless entertainment.New shovels

After digging a hole big enough to set a power pole, the crew turned to positioning the stanchion sleeve, the slender hollow tube used to house that state of  the art breakaway feature. 

 Stanchion sleeve


While the men were doing the grunt work, little Bobbie, her pigtails a’quiver with concentration, was piecing together the bracket to hold the mailbox, adjusting it to fit the width of the base, following the directions, of course. Ah, woman’s work!Following instructions Tom showed me the special stanchion. I asked, “So what happens when the first SUV backs over that and bends the post to ground level?” Tom smiled knowingly, “You pull out the bent stanchion and replace it with a new one!” My reply “And where do I get that?” The smile turned to puzzlement. “I have no idea,” he said. Hardly an encouraging--or entertaining answer. This little interchange led me to understand that I would have had the option of using a standard 4” x 4” post. However, the posts were treated according to WSDOT specs and regulations and stamped “WSDOT approved.”  (Wonder what that specifications page looked like!) Tom thought maybe I could purchase one at Matthis Lumber down in Woodinville if I wanted. At this juncture I thought it wise to hang on to my old mailbox stanchion, have it ready just in case that wayward SUV came along. I had the two shovelers haul the old setup over to the fence line for safekeeping.

The stanchion sleeve was set and out came the tape measures and spirit level. Foresight is 20-20, right? While the measuring was taking place, I told Tom I had a big favor to ask. How big, he wanted to know. “When your crew has the mailbox and stanchion in place, make sure they position it with the address side facing north in the direction of the in-coming mail.” “Gotcha,” Tom smiled. Measure once. Measure twice. Level once. Level twice. Following the specs“39” up. 28” in. Ah, just right. Now for the metal wedge to lock the stanchion at the regulation height. This is a job for the supervisor. Tom does the honors, hammers the wedge in place. Ah, what perfection! The precision of it all! Whoa! But wait! Just a minute here!What’s going on? Tom and the gang so micromanaged the stanchion adjustment they forgot about positioning the mailbox bracket at right angles to the highway. ThTom does the honorsere it sits, paralleling the road. Set the box now and the address will face the house, the doors  will open parallel the highway. Just one little favor was all, Tom….come on now.TSI screwup



They try to remove the wedge. Thanks to hard hittin’ Tom, it won’t budge. This is entertainment at its best!  How to proceed now? Tom makes an executive decision, has the guys yank sleeve and stanchion out of the hole and reset it in the untamped soil. No measuring or leveling this time. Just eyeball it. Just reset it and wrap ‘er up. (This entire time Tom’s truck has been idling in the driveway.) 

Well, that wraps up a rollicking fine hour and a half’s entertainment. And when they install Mark’s new stanchion next door, I might very well pop over for the second showing.

Thanks, Tom, for livening up my day. And thank you, too, Ms.Lorena Eng for your support. Hopefully  our mail service will resume tomorrow. My dear, these balloons are for you.

Adminstrator's balloons

(This afternoon I took my tape measure, sauntered out to our new, state-of-the art mailbox, did a little measuring of my own, and discovered the mailbox was two and a half inches shy of WSDOT regulations, a scant thirty-six and a half inches above the pavement. Shhhhhhh! I’m not telling anyone. And you better not either.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Valley: July 20

Ranier in July

A few days have passed since Gladys and I rode the Valley. This morning we take advantage of the cool marine air and cloud cover that have kept the summer heat at bay the past several days. As we wend our way through the gray morning, I note some subtle changes that mark the Valley progress (or retreat?) since my last visit. Take Brett De Vries’ vegetable garden, for instance. It appears Brett has decided to return his garden plot to its native state; weeds have shoved aside the vegetable rows and reclaimed their territory. Once you let the weeds get the upper hand, all you can do is throw up your hands in surrender and wait until next year. I can see corn. Sunflowers tower over the strangle of weeds. Twine from an overhead trellis descends into the weeds. I wonder what produce--beans, maybe--will struggle out of that jungle. Brett, bless his heart, is trying to be the Valley farmer, but his job, girlfriend, and social life run counter to the farmin’ life. We all have our priorities. My garden is nearly weed-free, a testimony—not because of priorities—but to…well, this chapter of my life. Maybe a weed-choked garden is a better trade-off for Brett? The years will unravel for him, too.

Further on down the road in the field across from Gramma Frohning’s I notice some serious farmin’ going on: some of Willie Green’s crew are planting fall broccoli (Fall, already?). The seedlings are plucked broccoli planters from their starting trays by one worker who sets them in the row where they’re planted by the support team. “Ola!” I say, to get them to look up and smile for the camera.

The field of pasture hay south of the broccoli  patch has been freshly cut (good haying weather in July), and I see a bald eagle swooping about, shopping, no doubt, for casualties and cripples, victims of the mowing machine.hayfield eagle He plunges into the hayfield and returns to altitude, clutching a bundle of hay (and what else?) in his talons.

On up the Valley I meet the master berryman, Tony Broer, leisurely riding his vintage bike to his old homestead where he’ll probably have his morning coffee with daughter-in-law Ginnifer. Gladys, female that she is, is jealous of those beautiful white-wall tires on Tony’s ride. Ah, envy, the green-eyed monster: but who can blame Gladys…those white-walls are pretty impressive. And those balloon tires…. What’s not to covet there!

To conclude this post, let me return to its predecessor : “A Sweet Pea Evening.” The only bouquet recipient left for the season is Phyllis Bickler. Ms. Bickler has been on vacation, and she has already missed out on her first bouquet. Today I picked and took the second to Safeway, but to no avail: Phyllis won’t be manning the deli until Thursday, I learn, but while I’m in the store, I notice Sheri Miedema is on her shift in the Starbucks’ kiosk. Sheri grew up in the Valley and any news from her is more manna for my blog. I order a Grande iced tea ( black, no sugar, light on the ice). Sheri flashes her beautiful smile at me and says, “ Guess what, I’m the only Miedema girl who’s unmarried!” (Sheri’s sister Linda celebrated her nuptials on July 10, I learn.)  I ask Sheri how she feels about that. That beautiful smile again. “Just fine,” she grins. “Let me know when there’s any news,” I reply.

And that sweet pea bouquet? I decide to deliver it to Linnae at Breezy Blends Espresso. In the Valley there are happy accidents aplenty. Linnae tells me Breezy Blends is now serving soft ice cream. The next hot summer day in the Valley, please make mine chocolate.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Sweet Pea Evening

Sweetpea multiflora

It’s a warm, easy-livin’ summer evening here in the Valley. I’m sitting on the deck in the shade of the big maple tree. The leaves rustle gently and on the breeze rides a flood of fragrance. Sweet peas. Mid July and they are in full bloom, saturating the evening with their nose titillating aroma. An investment made in March now pays off in a burst of pastels and a heady perfume.

Last fall I gleaned the spent vines for seed, seed I planted March 30.burst of fragrance Several evenings last September I would make my way down the trellised rows picking the swollen pods, now crisp and brown from the summer’s heat. I shelled the pods into a paper sack, gathering enough surplus to plant a fifty foot row. Last time I checked, sweet pea seed was selling for $65.00 a pound and that was years ago. Of course a pound of seed would plant a lot of ground. But since the price of seed is dear, it pays to save your own. Besides, it’s a putterin’ type of task, the kind I’m best at. A half hour of seed gathering in the pea patch on warm fall evenings—a good way to wind down the day—or keep it at bay for a pea

The olfactory sense is a strong trigger of memory and as the sweet air wafts around me, I’m thinking of  another evening almost a year go. Sweet peas featured prominently at that gala: my daughter’s wedding to Mr. Avi Finkel. Sweet peas were her flower of choice, sweet peas grown in the backyard garden of the house where she grew up.

We had a lot riding on last summer’s patch. I planted 125 feet of sweet pea rows. In the weeks that followed, I tended the vines with vigilance and Miracle Gro, on the lookout for aphid and other pests. We would need bushels of blossoms for bouquets, centerpieces and the wedding cake. I planted a special ten foot section of a single color, burgundy, for the bridal bouquet.

As the wedding day approached, we picked bouquets daily; you must keep the flowers picked, the new seed pods clipped, for the vines to keep blossoming. Five days before the wedding we gave the vines free rein.  The morning of the wedding, the trellised rows were a profusion of color. I picked for three hours until  I had gathered every blooming stem in the patch. Trecia made the bride-to-be a beautiful bridal bouquet from the burgundy flowers and two more from the multi-flora rows. Sweet pea bouquet

At Lord Hill Farms, the wedding site, family members snipped individual blossoms into buckets. Sister-in-law Vicki who has an eye for the artistic, the decorative, sprinkled the blossoms around the centerpieces. Sweet pea centerpiece(A three and a half gallon bucket of sweet peas was used for the wedding party and guest tables. The spare blooms we scattered around on the remaining support stations.) Burgundy sweet peas not used in the bridal bouquet ornamented the wedding cake.Marika's big Day 010  Now that was one very special sweet pea evening!

As I gaze out at this year’s sweet peas—a patch less than half of last—I think of that memorable evening a year ago and what pleasure my sweet pea endeavors brought me, the members of the wedding and the guests. In fact the raising of sweet peas—as I see it—should be for the pleasure of others, as well as the gardener. Each year I try to spread a little sweet pea cheer among friends and neighbors: a bouquet for the ladies at the bank, one for Mrs. Larry at Courtesy Tire, another for my old neighbor Tina Streutker. My environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L has her annual bouquet. And there’s one for Phyllis Bickler at Safeway. A special one next door for Cindi who’s struggling with cancer. Today I picked a bouquet that is currently in transit to Eastern Washington to adorn and perfume my mother’s kitchen table. And in between the gift bouquets, we bring indoors our own fragrance and color  to enjoy.

In fact I picked this virtual bouquet for you. Bury your face in the pastels blossoms and breathe in the virtual fragrance.

Virtual sweet peas

Friday, July 16, 2010

Misbeehavin’ in the Valley

M.H. veiled

It is a cloudy morning in the Valley although there’s a veiled threat of sunshine. As I approach Ed’s blueberries, I see a white truck and a veiled figure puttering around a pallet of bees placed there for pollination. Ah, a fellow beekeeper, one of the Order, a kindred spirit, a Keeper of the Bees. I pull Gladys over to the shoulder and introduce myself, find out the latest buzz, so to speak. I meet Mathew Higgins, owner and manager of Duvall True Value Hardware. He has set his bees at Broer Farms gratis, in exchange for good bee forage. Roadside and in the Valley the blackberries are in bloom and Matt has high hopes for a good crop of blackberry honey. Last summer’s unusually hot, dry weather stymied the blackberry nectar. Matt and I drew a blank. Hardly enough surplus to sweeten a cup of tea.

Matt is “supering up” his bees. Some boxes have yet to be painted. It’s been my experience that the season always outpaces paint. In our neck of the woods the honey flow may last only two weeks; timing is essential if you want to get a honey crop here in the Valley. Super up now. supered up You can always slap on a coat of paint after you pull the honey at season’s end. (I have even hauled a can of paint and brush to the beeyard and painted there, a tactic I wouldn’t recommend. A paint daubed bee may be colorful but she is doomed. Better let the little gal gather her life’s work, a tenth-teaspoon of nectar.)

He hopes to produce some comb honey this season, Matt tells me. Special conditions need to exist before bees will work in comb honey supers: hot weather and a heavy honey flow (usually cause and effect). Both rarely happen simultaneously in our cool, maritime climate. Matt hopes to fudge things along a little by crowding a colony of bees into one box and throwing on the comb supers. Considerable manipulation and precise timing are paramount, suffice it to say. But if Mother Nature balks, all his efforts will be for naught.

Depending on the crop, there’s a certain ratio farmers use—colonies per acre—for maximum pollination. Commercial beekeepers then provide the grower that number and place the colonies in strategic locations throughout the crop. I knew Matt had another pallet of bees at the south end of Ed’s second thornless patch and asked him how they were doing. “I had to move them out,” he replied. “Why?”I wondered. “The neighbors complained.” Ed has new neighbors and even though pollinating bees have been placed there for years, these Johnny Come Latelys protested. Matt told me he tried to reason with the folks, but after he discovered some cans of RAID beside piles of dead bees, he decided further negotiating was futile and moved his bees. “How neighborly of ‘em,” was my response.

Many folks—out of just plain ignorance—would as soon suffer a serial killer or level three offender in their neighborhood as a colony of bees. A bizarre aspect of this honeybee extermination is that Ed’s new neighbors are not new to the Valley, have just relocated next to the blackberry patch-- unfortunately for the bees, Broer Farms—and beekeeper Matt. Not only does this act seem senseless and inconsiderate but selfish as well. In a Valley where berries are a cash crop, seems to me interfering with the bees’ purpose is depriving a hard working farm family of a portion of their livelihood.

Without the industrious honeybee, the produce selection in your grocery store would be much diminished, and the fare on your dinner table would be much slimmer, too. These are hard times for honeybee colonies: Colony Collapse Disorder, Varroa and pharyngeal Matt Higginsmites, parasites both-- and suspected disease vectors for bees-- pesticides and herbicides… all present a perfect storm of stressors for the struggling honeybee. I’m sure Mathew would agree that fear and ignorance should not be added to the mix. 

Perhaps that’s why when I return home just in time to see a DOT spray crew creeping along the shoulder, spritzing herbicide on the BLOOMING blackberries, I prance about, wave my arms like a berserk, and try to get their attention. “I’ve got bees back there!” I scream. Sadly, there’s a lot of ignorance in this world. I know. Some of it just passed by this very moment.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Valley on Cruise Control


Note: The Valley Ripple has been on hiatus the past  few days. I left the Valley on cruise control while I attended the annual convention of the Lepidopterist Society July 8-11. Lepidopterists from around the world attended, and to have such a significant event so close to home was a once in a lifetime opportunity for this novice. 

The collectorI met many interesting and colorful people and participated in three field trips to visit several butterfly-rich locations.

Some highlights of the four day gathering were: participating in an all night mothing field trip; moth crew collecting butterflies on the summit of Chumstick Mountain where one can observe and collect (if you are a “watcher” or a “collector”) 87 species of Washington State butterflies; attending an evening barbeque at Red Tail Ranch where I had the opportunity to talk to other lepidoptera enthusiasts; and listening to experts in the field discuss a variety of bug-related subjects.Watching in the night






sphinx moth


I was fortunate enough to add three special butterflies to my collection: two Callophrys affinis washingtonia, the Washington hairstreak, a state butterfly rarely seen—at least for this collector. And I added another species to my collection of State butterflies, Heliopetes ericetorum, the Northern White Skipper, a butterfly I had never observed before. Netting this little beauty brought my collection of Washington State butterflies to over one hundred species.

On a more sober note, I was collecting at a puddling site in Swakane Canyon, Chelan County, on Saturday July 10, when a brushfire erupted in the Canyon. As of this morning the fire had burned over 12,000 acres and was only thirty per cent contained. A concern of mine was that the point of origin appeared to be in the vicinity of our collecting site, a lush riparian area where swallowtails throng to the mud for thePapilios minerals. Another party and I were at the site for an hour and a half and saw no sign of a fire, but as we exited the Canyon, we saw a plume of smoke up the valley. By the time I left, the fire had grown to over one hundred acres and smoke billowed up over the north hillside. On the way out of the valley I was stopped by a County Sheriff and asked to  give an accounting for my presence in Swakane His first question: “Did you have a campfire?” The cause of the fire is under investigation. I am currently monitoring the event and am anxious to learn how it started.


Bucket work Swakane Fire

The four days in Leavenworth were stimulating and educational. I learned many new things: collecting techniques, species’ habitats and food sources, and that there are “moth” people who are as passionate about these creatures of the night as I am about the butterflies,their day counterparts. What I learned most from the four day seminar, however, was that even after collecting and studying lepidoptery for forty years, I still don’t know very much. There is a lot yet left to learn.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Amaizin’ Valley

The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye. And it looks like it’s climbin’ right up to the sky. (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma)

Independence Day, 2010. The Valley skies are leaden and spit on us as we’re outward bound. Independence, indeed. Mother Nature grips our weather and summer with the handsScarecrow Gladys of Rosy the Riveter. Each July Fourth the Grand Old Republic marks another milestone. Number 234 today. But Gladys and I are out in the Valley to check another benchmark. It is midpoint in the growing season and we have ridden here to see if  “the corn is knee high by the Fourth of July.”

2010 has yet to see any summer, and if there is any knee high corn in the Valley, it’ll be found in the Werkhoven cornfields. They are the first to put seed in the ground every year, and try as I may, I have yet to sow mine before theirs is seeded. We stop opposite the parking lot at Swiss Hall for our measurement. I pose Gladys in the corn like she’s a scarecrow. Knee high? Well, up to her axels anyway….

In June one summer years ago our family took a road trip—a pilgrimage, actually—to Dyersville, Iowa, to visit the movie set of The Field of Dreams, the Field of Dreams cornfield of Don Lansing. Now in the midwest, the cornbelt of the Nation, corn grows prodigiously. I’ve heard it said on hot days you can stand in a cornfield and hear the corn grow, hear it squeak as it climbs skyward. I don’t remember any of Don Lansing’s corn squeaking when we were there, but I do know I was disappointed when I discovered in those final days of June the corn was only waist high--if that. In the Kevin Costner movie, the ghosts of old ball players materialize from the rows of corn, play their ballgames, return into the stalks and disappear as if the field swallowed them up. It was my plan to videotape daughter Marika doing the same, striding into the rows until she too disappeared among the cornstalks. Disappear in waist high corn? I had to use the “fade” mode on the camera to make her fade away.

Just across the road from Werkhovens’ corn is Decks’ field. The Decks farm to a different drum: the last to plant, the last to cut. Last is leastWerkhovens’ corn had sprouted a half foot before Decks even plowed their field and prepared it for planting. Their cornfield looks like a green crewcut. Half the corn in my corn patch nearly matches that of Werkhovens’, a week or so younger. The other half is more like Decks’: planted a month later because the garden was too wet to “farm.”

I return now to our purpose in the Valley this morning, the Fourth of July, 2010: is the corn knee high yet? I’ll let you judge for yourself.You be the judge

And though it’s no Oklahoma cornfield I’m standing in, do those legs and knees look a bit elephantine to you?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Blackberry Winter…

Blackberry Winter, the time when the hoarfrost lies on the blackberry blossoms; without this frost the berries will not set. It is the forerunner of a rich harvest. (prefatory epigram in Margaret Mead’s Blackberry Winter)

Bloomin' Blackberries


The winter of 2008 was devastating to the Valley blackberries. For nearly two weeks single digit temperatures at night and successive days of lows in the teens stunned next season’s fruiting canes. While the cold snap didn’t kill the berry rootstock, it annihilated last summer’s berry crop. This season the fruiting canes are in full bloom presaging a good crop when the berries ripen later in August. 

Here in the Valley we have the “feral” blackberries, too. Nothing short of a North Slope winter could kill them. There are two native varieties: Himalaya and Trailing Evergreen. Dense patches of both throng the roadsides and fence lines like thorny kudzu, the vines sprouting from seeds spread by birds. Turn your back on a sunny patch of bare ground and the next you know, there’s a prickly thicket covering the ground when you turn around.

The commercial blackberries are thornless and were first planted by Tony Broer, the Valley’s berry patriarch as sort of reprisal against his earlier marionberry experience. “I hate those bastards,” Tony told me, not the least bit remorseful that Winter ‘08 pretty much did them in. Their reign concluded this spring when the dead canes were pulled out, the trellis posts yanked, and the field mowed flat. “Good riddance!” was Tony’s terse eulogy. Tony Broer, farmerI don’t blame him. Wrapping those marionberry canes was like wrestling a snarl of barbed wire. Nothing short of leather welding gloves could do battle with that onslaught of thorns. The size and flavor of marionberries, like boysenberries, make them desirable, but contending with the vines and armament lessens their appeal. They do not fare well as a “Up-Pick” venue. After a berry picking session it’s hard to distinguish the stains on your fingers and palms from berry juice or your own dried blood.

The thornless berries are Tony’s bBest mower everabies. The rows line up as if laid out by a surveyor’s transit. Canes are wrapped with the precision of a loom. The middles of the rows are mowed; each cane cluster freed from weeds. Yes, there’s more going on here than the strivings of a master berryman. These are the labors of an enamored Dutchman.

It is a cloudy day in the Valley but not unpleasant. A pallet of bees has been brought in fPollinatorsor pollination. I step into the rows to see if they are in business among the blackberries. There’s certainly pasture enough for them. And sure enough I see several sashaying through the blossoms, tripping the light fantastic among the anthers’ pollen dust, slurping up that sweet blackberry nectar. 

Pollen headstand


Thanks to the bees’ dance, come August these delicate blooms will be thumb-sized fruits, black as onyx,  shiny as a child’s patent leather shoes. They seem to cry out for the confines of a pie crust. But their dusky beauty is deceptive. A few years back Ed decided the last picking was too slim to bother with; I could pick what I wanted for a pie, he said. And I did just that.

The pie was a disappointing failure. No, it wasn’t the crust, either. To contain the filling, I use a ready made crust, foolproof and simple. A Man Crust. It comes neatly packaged from the grocery. You find it right next to those tubes of ready-made biscuits. No, the filling was the disappointment. As far as those succulent black berries were concerned, I discovered beauty was only skin deep. Each was just a thinly veiled sweetness covering a core thicker than a cotton swab. Enough fiber in a single berry to satisfy the maximum daily requirement. After eating a portion of pie, you felt as if you’d chewed through a flannel sheet.

Thornless blackberries! Humph! There’s a reason for those thorns. They’re there to guard the REAL goods. If you want to go thornless, better stick to the juice. Jelly or syrup would be my recommendation. Unless, that is, you want to do a Brando impression of Don Corleone.