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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Valley in Snowtime…

December snowWhose fields these are

I surely know.

They’re working at the  dairy, though;

They will not see me

Walking here to watch

Their cornfields fill with snow….

There was a light snow early this morning, and I’ve left Gladys behind in the garage. As usual I have put off mounting the studded tires on her, and I know should the chance arise she’d take advantage of the slushy roadside to dump me in the weeds.

There’s not much happening in the Valley these days. Christmas has come and gone and though the New Year is fast around the corner, the Valley seems to shrug this all off. The only activity I see this morning is a lone kestrel perched sentinel on the power lines, ever vigilant for a field mouse romping in the snow; if you’re a hawk, you must take your meals when you can.

It seems news has fled the Valley this month. But in this day of intermittent snow flurries, you can find entertainment in the simplest of thingSnowberriess, and as I walk along like an old geezer in a snow globe, I stare upward into the dizzying flakes, single out one from an entire sky of swirling snow, a tiny speck, and follow it to earth. Gaze skyward again; select another; watch it spiral down, growing larger as it spins and tumbles to the ground. This is great fun: provided from time to time you keep track of the posts and poles roadside while your attention is on the heavens.

As I watch the eiderdown fragments of fluff sift down, my thoughts turn, if not philosophical, at least to physics, a subject that kept me off my high school honor roll, but then in that class we never dealt with the important stuff of physics such as the ponderous question: which is heavier, a pound of lead or a pound of snowflakes? Or just how much does a snowflake weigh, anyhow? Does it weigh anything at all? The fact that a flake of snow “falls,” and doesn’t levitate, means it has mass. And isn’t “mass” weight? The Earth has mass; a snowflake likewise, thus they attract each other. That a snowflake is subject to Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation the same way that a falling ten ton boulder is, is hard for me to wrap my mind around. I guess you have to think about snowflakes in the conglomerate, right, like: Smack! The heaviness of a snowball right between your eyes! Or a snowman. Try packing Frosty around for a while. An avalanche? You wouldn’t want that many snowflakes rolling down on you, would you? And think of glaciers: the weight of all those snowflakes standing on each other’s heads have carved valleys into mountainsides. That’s heaviness for you: eons of snowflakes all working together for a common cause. 

Snow dusted ValleyAs I walk along through the falling snow, one question follows another. Do all snowflakes reach the same terminal velocity? Or do some snowflakes fall more slowly than others? What affect does a snowflake’s hexagonal structure have on its  descent to earth? Is an ice crystal the same as a snowflake? What effect, if any, does air pollution have on a snowflake’s formation and mass? Mr. Asplundh, why do I now, a middle-aged man, still have all these questions years beyond your high school physics class? Perhaps because all you talked about most of the school year were your mountaineering experiences? Ah, public education! A wonder we scholars learned anything at all!

Just one more snowSome pretty heady thoughts inspired by the Valley, eh? Be thankful Gladys is still in the garage--Mr. Asplundh never taught us a doggone thing about the coefficient of friction.

Friday, December 24, 2010

From the Archives…A Christmas Card from the Valley…

This first day after the Winter solsticeTony in the Fall reminds me that the Valley Ripple has prevailed through two equinoxes and now two solstices. And thanks to you readers for suffering through my long-winded ramblings. (Perhaps the “Ripple” should have been more aptly named the “Ramble” because some of them do go on and on, don’t they?) I’ll try to keep this one brief. But sometimes a post takes on a life of its own. I make no promises. This from the Ripple’s archives:

In all the years I’ve lived in the Valley I’ve received only one Christmas card from Tony Broer. And it came about this way. Some years back Tony emigrated from his quaint 1894 homestead and moved a few hundred yards north up Tualco to a fashionable new homestead complete with an RV friendly garage.Tony's new House One glance at Tony B’s place is sufficient to show he is ultra fastidious in everything he does: his berry rows are laid out, I’m sure, with a surveyor’s stick and transit. His new home…well, there’s not a fleck of paint misplaced. And thus at Tony B.’s, you’d expect no less than golf course perfection from his yard and lawn. It’s been said that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory. For Tony, however, it was his yard that was the measure of a man.

While I can’t be certain, I suspect Tony’s first morning chore before he went out to do battle with the berries was to inspect the surrounding carpet of grass, make sure every blade was of equal height, every sprig of grass pointing in the right direction. I’m sure once a week without fail Tony lovingly edged the borders of his turf with a scalpel. I honestly believe he had erected some sort of psychic force field around his yard. Should some errant dandelion seed drift off course and wing its way toward the lawn, this invisible fence would deflect it or zap the seed altogether; the shoulder across the road could be dandelion gold, but no sunny little faces smiled from Tony’s immaculate green. They wouldn’t dare. I would walk by and whenever he was surveying his realm of grass, I would get Tony’s attention, stoop and snap off a seeded dandelion and threaten to blow its fuzzy head in the direction of his landscape. My efforts were always rewarded by a raised fist and a scowl.

The Tualco Valley is rich farmland and consequently is home to some impressive-sized annelids. In this land of worms a’plenty, I was puzzled by the lack of mole activity on Tony’s greensward. Moles are the bane of a landscaper’s existence here in the Valley. Apparently Mr. Broer’s force field worked subterraneanly as well. “Tony,” I’d asked whenever I’d see him out giving the morning’s directives to the lawn, “Why is it you don’t have any moles in your yard?” A broad smile and a shrug. “Do you want some?” The smile shrank to a scowl. Up came the fist.

Well, the inevitable happened. After all, the Valley ain’t Buchart Gardens, is it? You can’t have a mole-free lawn here. Tony should have known that. Best you can hope for is a country lawn which is pretty much the same as pasture. Tony let down his guard, took the RV on the road for a month or so, and forgot to put his force field on a timer. It was not an immaculate reception he returned to but a blemished yardscape, like pimples on a beautiful girl’s face, except some of these eruptions were more the size of boils—or carbuncles, even. Rampant molestation. I walked by one day to see Tony standing disconsolately on his porch staring out at the moonscape that was his lawn. Ah, and a sad sight it was, too; I nearly broke down myself.

The week of Christmas rolled around and the moles gifted Tony with some impressive new mounds. Christmas is a time for merriment and festivity. I hated to see Tony so dispirited over his heaped up lawn and decided he needed lightening up a bit, could use some comic relief. So in the spirit of the season I located a miniature Christmas tree, fully decorated and fine-tuned to deliver the Christmas Spirit wherever needed. Before light the next morning, tree in hand, I marched up the road to the Broer place. Even in the dark it was easy to locate a cluster of mounds. I chose the largest one and next to it I placed the tree and staked it firmly to the ground with a couple of wire stakes.

Two days later I found a Christmas card in the mailbox (Yes, the card has arrived! Finally! But you know how the mails are these days….) I opened it and read: “Merry Christmas! Looks like even the moles are celebrating the season! The Broers.” And for days afterward the little tree stood festively beside the mound. Later it disappeared, but the ornaments remained—Tony had hung them on the branches of the small oak tree near the mound where they stayed until spring.

If I didn’t thank you for that card, Tony, I thank you now. And a very Merry Christmas to you. And a very Merry Christmas to each and everyone in the Valley.

…except for the moles, that is. You troublesome little miners…I’d like to take each of your pesky moleskins and stuff it with coal. That’s my Merry Christmas to you--each and everyone!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Getting Lit in the Valley…

Just a week before Christmas. I thought I’Christmas goose a'glowd drive out in the Valley to check its Christmas Spirit Quotient (CSQ). CSQ is a mathematical measurement that assesses a family’s holiday involvement by the number of strands of lights they drape over their homes and landscapes. Those who are swept up by the season express their enthusiasm by letting their lights shine; their houses become beacons of Christmas spirit. But it’s the quantity of “exterior illumination” that makes the statement. In my opinion a candle or two in a window or a wreath slapped on the door doesn’t really reflect much in the way of holiday cheer.

Not only does the seasonal lights fantastic signify traditional involvement, but it is a multi-colored indicator of the indomitable will of the exterior illuminator: the challenge of light strands of Christmases past. You know what I mean; we’ve all been there before. You drag the birdnests and snarls of holiday lights out of storage. Cautiously you test them first: plug ‘em in and they glow cheerfully back at you. Then up the ladder you go, lights trailing behind you, string and position each strand, each bulb strategically. Off to the power switch you go: you want to admire your efforts. Except that now the lights don’t work. You jiggle the wires, fiddle with a bulb or two, hoping against hope there’s a loose connection somewhere. Even consider for a brief moment (very brief)  going through the entire strand switching out each bulb with a functioning one. Ah, the triumph of hope over experience. Ben Franklin never had this much trouble getting his kite and key to spark. But there’s nothing left to do but hit the road for Freddies: Fred Meyers and China, my two favorite charities this time of year. After all, it’s the season for giving, isn’t it?

I know there’s that tree blazing away in the parlor, a strand of lights or two over a doorway, around a window, up a doorframe. But that’s for family, folks. What about the neighbors? What about all the tourists out in our Valley at night? Spirit-- let’s show ‘em what Christmas material we’re made of.

Christmas spirit here in the Valley? Let me tell you about Jerald and Tina Streutker. This from the Ripple’s Christmas archives. Jerald and Tina not only had that spectacular tree in their corner window but always addressed the season with fully illuminated eaves. Now if you’ve followed my blog, you know about Streutkers’ cement goose. (Take a gander at the April 1st post; the “Goose for all Seasons,” we called him.) It was this time of year I sent them a Christmas card and jokingly remarked, “Your place looks great but you need to light up that goose.” Two days later—a card from the Streutkers with the brief comment: “The goose is lit.” And indeed it was, sure enough, his neck wreathed in lights. Now that’s holiday spirit, folks. Go thou and do likewise.

As of this post, here’s my assessment of the Valley’s CSQ. New folks on Christianson Rd and Tualco: nice wreath. Brett and Megan, your first Christmas tree as a married couple is a tribute to Jerald and Tina’s living room tree but hang some lights on those eaves; the house deserves it. Tony Broer: so happy to see your illuminated eaves, but you need to replace those dead bulbs. Werkhovens, as usual, have lit up their stretch of Valley.

JW's place 


AW's placeFine display there, Jim and that upgrade to LED icicle strands really stands out this year. But I’m still not seeing a color wheel splashing up any colors on that aluminum tree.

Back on the upper loop stretch there’s a nice display on that house where the guy used to raise chickens. And Beebes’ spread. Wow! Looks like the Oasis of the Seas cruise ship has harbored in the Valley. And the driveway looks like a Christmas promenade. Dazzling Driveway Kudos to your efforts. If I’m any judge of CSQ, the award goes to your display this year.

And Ed? I had high hopes for your place this season. I have to admit, I had my doubts about this year’s display. Two or three times I’ve noticed a strand of lights partially hanging from the eaves and wondered if they would ever make their way up the South Face. But Ed’s come through, finally, for this dark  morning I look out across the Valley and I see an illuminated “V”glowing off to the west. Ed has finally “peaked” out. That strand has climbed its way up and down the eaves of his house. Ah, good! Lit at last!Ed's Lit

But the barn, Ed? No lights on that grand old barn this year? Light up that barn, and you light up the Valley. The CSQ Valley prize could be yours, Ed. You only have to go for it. The Ripple's contribution

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hounded in the Valley…

Cloud banked Ranier

Doggone it anyway. Can’t a fella and his bicycle have a leisurely ride (it’s the only way Gladys and I travel) in the Valley without being set upon by a pack of dogs? You know, I’ve seen it coming. I told myself way back last summer when I saw that heaving pile of pups on Johnny Deck’s lawn, “Doggone it, there’s trouble brewing here.” And as days, weeks, months, passed, that mound of pups grew into dogs, and pretty hefty hounds they are, too. Now over the years I’ve owned four dogs, and you don’t have to be a dog whisperer to know some basics about dog behavior. Here you have it in a nutshell: one dog’s a pet, two+ dogs are a pack and suddenly you’re dealing with pack mentality. I also know that dogs are not unlike humans where habits are concerned—a dog’s habit is doggone hard to break. An egg suckin’ dog lives to suck eggs; a chicken killin’ dog lives for a mouthful of feathers; a tire chasin’ dog lives for spinning rubber. Doggone it, once a dog starts chasing moving vehicles, there’s no 12 day program I’m aware of for doggie rehab.

Yes, I know the Valley is country, folks, and seems like the wide open spaces, but the pioneer days of elbow room are gone. Doggone it, let’s keep our animals in check, people, especially if you have a yard full of dogs. It’s just doggone unneighborly of you to let them roam free range. A couple years back we had a midnight visitation by a pair (two…there’s your pack mentality) of rabbit-crazed golden retrievers that splintered our deck trying to get at a hapless cottontail. The same dynamic duo dismantled the woodpile tunneling after their bunny victim. Canines errant have trampled my seed beds in planting time. And one of my doggone “pet” peeves is running afoul of a pile of dog stuff with the riding mower. Nothing quite cancels out the smell of fresh mown grass as pet pooh. And if the offensive substance lodges in the tread of the tires…well, the stench flies back at you with each revolution of the wheel and it lingers until the job is done and you hose off the tire.

There seems to be an attitude among many pet owners that ownership and love of a pet is justification  enough to suffer it on others as well. And that’s doggone aggravating.

Now let me return to the reason for this post. The last couple of months that pile of dogs on Decks’ lawn has unraveled itself a half dozen of times when Gladys and I ride into view.They’ve left off their scratching, and ambushed us en masse. Suddenly we have become the doggone source of entertainment for a whole yard of motley canine crew, at once surrounded by a flash mob of yipping and yapping mutts. That’s pretty much been the extent of this annoyance--until this past Monday, that is. And then the inevitable happened. Lumbering along on our way back from flood patrol, we are once again set up by that unruly pack of hounds. And this time a black Lab “pup”makes contact and snags my sweats just above my right ankle. Now it’s challenge enough to stay astride Gladys under normal riding conditions, but let me tell you, forward progress with a seventy pound black Lab hanging off your leg is not only difficult but doggone annoying. Not much damage, just ripped fabric. No skin broken. No bloodshed—yet. Not this time….

Another concern I have when Gladys and I become the center of this flurry of canine attention: what happens, say, when you factor in an oncoming vehicle whizzing along at forty miles an hour and suddenly the road is filled with dogs and some old codger on a vintage bike? I’m afraid a chance meeting like that could very well result in a goulash of dog flesh, pieces of bike and vehicle parts—and me as the main ingredient. One dog in the road is distraction enough, let alone a whole pack. It may be just me, but shouldn’t dogs do their frolicking on private property and not harass passersby using a public thoroughfare?

I’m on my way home licking my emotional near wounds when I notice a blue van with an official logo on its side parked in the corner lot by the Breezy Blends Espresso Stand. I wheel in and ride to a stop alongside the van. The logo reads: “Snohomish County Animal Control Services.” A coincidence, perhaps? Or is there justice in this fragile world after all! The officer inside is writing up an official report of some sort. My presence interrupts him. When we make eye contact, I don’t say a word but point to the tear in my pants. “Did that just happen?” he asks? I tell him, yes, and like a good reporter, fill in the details, give him the “where,” the “what,” and for good measure throw in the “whose.” The officer shakes his head. “You know,” he said, “I was just over there. I’ve already ticketed the owner once and he’s since told me he had thinned the numbers down to three and licensed them as per County ordinances.” I told the officer I was sure there were more than three dogs that rushed out to greet me. “Do you want to file a complaint?” he asks. I tell him, no, I’m just a guy out enjoying the Valley and that’s all I ask for. I try to leave a “light footprint” in my travels and the last thing I want to do is rile up the natives. After giving me some helpful advice on protective measures I might employ should the incident repeat itself in the future, the officer gives me his card and off I pedal home.

You know, why a dairyman—or anyone, for that matter--needs a pack of hounds on his place is beyond me. This is not Jolly Olde England; a dairyman, I’m sure, hasn’t the time to run his hounds  through the countryside after a fox. (Do we even have foxes here in the Valley?) It ain’t the Ozarks either, doggone it, where the good ol’ boys sit around a bonfire atop a ridgeback somewheres, drink moonshine, and listen to their hounds chase a ‘coon up the hills and down the hollers. Do dairymen need dogs to help herd their herd from here to there? Don’t dairy cows wander into the milking stalls of their own accord?Is the dairy business in such dire straits that a dairyman needs to run a puppy mill on the side? It’s my guess that this superfluity of hounds was the result of animal husbandry misapplied(an unplanned canine pregnancy, is my guess).

A follow-up with Animal Control officer informs me that a County resident may own no more than three licensed canines per address. (It appears that multiple addresses apply in this case, thus complicating the issue here.) I was also told that my “unofficial” complaint had precedent, all from bicyclists, it seems. I learn, too, that after our conversation, the officer went back to the “scene of the crime” and did a stakeout. He observed four dogs, none of which showed any inclination to chase motor vehicles. Apparently the Deck dogs prefer bicyclists—and Gladys and I, well…we’re about as elusive as a football tackling dummy. Sitting ducks is what we are.

As I’ve said, I like dogs. The four I’ve owned have been a special part of my life. My neighbors now have or have had dogs; my daughter has a dog. But none of us has had a passel of hounds. We didn’t and don’t let our pets roam at will to and fro in the Valley and up and down in it, causing all sorts of mischief. Call me a fussy old man if you wish, but any seventy pound hound dangling from your ankle as you bicycle down a public road is NOT this man’s best friend.

My last word on the subject: “Doggonit!” And don’t I wish…!

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Flood of News from the Valley…

…and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

Job 1:15

Ok, so I’m guilty of a bit of hyperbole here. We allLLoup awash S, didn’t we, escaped the latest threat of inundation here in the Valley. This morning Gladys and I rode out to see what was awash after the Pineapple Express steamrolled through.

We crank our way down to Swiss Hall where I expect to see the customary “Road Closed” sign centered at the entrance to the Lower Loop road, but we pedal on by without the warning. This latest flood event—a tempest in a teapot, I think, and continue on our regular route.

Just past Andy’s driveway there’s a warning sign. Gladys and I pedal on until we reach the curve south of Andy’s house where suddenly we scrunchhhh to a stop (wet brakes, old gal) because here the road has been swallowed up by a water hazard. Forward progress halted. Gladys and I tally up our many years’ experience. Even though we have ridden this stretch countless times, we know better than to test the flood waters—especially with that brazen current rushing south. It’s about face for both of us and we reverse course.

We bank the corner and I notice a small, red SUV slowing ahead. “Ah, ha,” I think. “Didn’t heed that sign, did you!” The car stops and I see a young blonde- headed gal step out, camera in hand. Herald Reporters  Deb and Sara She kneels and starts snapping the shutter. I pedal straight at her a bit but then in deference to a photo in the making, I swerve. Apparently I’m part of landscape because she follows me—or maybe it’s Gladys who’s the attraction here. Ah, Gladys—your first paparrazi. We’re about to pass when the driver gets out, stops us, and wants to know if she can ask me a question or two. She hauls out a pen and notepad. “We’re from the Everett Herald,” she says and hands me a card that reads, “Debra Smith, Reporter.” The Herald, eh! Trying to scoop the Valley Ripple…we’ll see about that! Ha! The nerve. Yes, the Herald is out in our Valley, scoopin’ up the news. It’s the news meeting the news—and I tell them about the Valley Ripple, give them the address. Debra and her photographer Sara (if I owe you an “h,” Sara[h], I’m sorry, but girls and their names these days…). Deb asks me a few questions but seems to be more interested in my ride. “You mean, Gladys?” I say and I launch into my steed’s bio. I answer Deb’s questions and tell her I’m retracing my route to the water hazard on the other end—as any dedicated journalist would. “So are we,” she says. I head out again, thinking, “Jeez, my first interview with the real news. Why didn’t I shave this morning?”

Gladys and I backtrack along the upper Loop. We stop when I get to the bridge over the slough and I take note of the sludge on the bridge decking. The sign has it right, I think.

Waters over troubled bridgeOn down the road we encounter another warning sign indicating the aforementioned water hazard.Flood waters ahead We’ve been to the other side, so there are no surprises here and on we roll toward the south end of the hazard.

Gladys—you have to give the old gal credit-- she’s up to the crossing even though her companion balks. But Glady, bless her--wisdom comes with winters—is no fool. She goes just so far and reason kicks in. It’s a no go, and we turn around once more.Gladys tests the watersHigh and dry back on the upper Loop, we meet Kevin Olson who lives in the rustic little house just north of the upper Loop bridge over Riley Slough. I’ve waved at Kevin a number of times as I’ve passed by. Wished him a “Happy Fourth of July,” just this past summer, in fact.Kevin Olson, survivor I’ve often wondered how his place fared during Valley flood events. Like a good reporter, I have all these questions I want to ask him, but I hold off because of priorities-- Kevin’s impressive moustache. It’s a winner, I tell him and share a comment I read in a William Kennedy novel: “It’s not a moustache unless you can see it from behind.” Kevin’s got himself an impressive set of handlebars there—even going away.

Kevin’s neat little homestead rubs elbows with Riley Slough. He has lived in the Valley for twenty-two years. I’m wondering how flood events have affected him. Kevin has stayed home from work today to monitor the flooding slough. “How’d you fare in ‘90?” I asked. “That was the big one, our worst. The water came up to the floor joists, to our second doorway step. We spent the night in the Victorian next door. The Van Ness’s let us stay with them.” “And in ‘06?” I asked. “Not a problem,” Kevin said. “You know, every event is different; just when you expect the worst, things play out ok,” he said, and knuckled his ballcap a couple of times. And I can’t tell you how many times we’ve done the same thing—and the wood has yet to be waterlogged.

It was a good day in the Valley. Relief, perhaps, that so far this year we all, if not high, are still dry. And dry may we all stay here in the Valley each and every day, each and every year, each and everyone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Under the Weather in the Valley…

Be prepared '06

There’s only one drawback to living in the Valley. No, it’s not the sudden smells that assault the nose from time to time— “the smell of money,” as Denise Beebe puts it—and it’s upon us now: the threat of  “sudden waterfront property.”Waterfront property           


Heavy, heavy hangs over our heads in the Valley today. Those of us who don’t want the hassle of airport security checks or airline gouging over checked baggage, don’t have to go Hawaii; Hawaii has come to us via the Pineapple Express, the euphemism for the more serious “plume of moisture” that is parked over the Valley this morning. And it’s not expected to leave its parking spot any time soon. December 12 and the temp is a balmy 56 degrees; the heavens have opened up; the rain is blowing sideways; the barometer fitful. As The Yearling’s Penny Baxter said of an imminent hurricane: “It’s going to come a reg’lar toad strangler of a rain.”

Every two hours last night I checked the Snohomish County Flood Warning Map ( “real time flood warning information.” Flood gauge stations maintained by the county are squares, color coded, representing the current flood phase. Until five this morning, all squares were green, level I. At this posting some have turned to yellow, phase II flooding. My concern is the yellow square at Index and the Skykomish River. Water seeks its own level, folks, and she’s on her way down in a rush. The Sky is expected to crest at eighteen feet 10:00 p.m. today.

Looks like it’s going to be a sleepless night in the Valley tonight. Or bad dreams with red lines running through ‘em (See Nov. 19th post, “Redlining the Valley”). Boots are by the door; flashlight nearby, both handy for the slog across the road every two Nov. 1990hours to see what Riley Slough is “up” to. Good luck, Valley people. Or bon voyage!

What is a cubit again? And just how many of ‘em do I need?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

To Tree or not to Tree: the Search for Perfection in the Valley…

The fun begins

“Christmas is just a hardship on a body,”my paternal Grandpa Mike used to grouch this time of the year. That sentiment was lost upon his grandchildren because we were children after all and Christmas to us was all glory, excitement, anticipation. It was our kid’s day of entitlement; our birthdays paled in comparison. 

When my wife and I were first married and lived in Seattle, we thought Grandpa Mike needed a little Christmas in his life and brought him and Grandma a small tree, table-top sized. Our intentions and the tree were noble enough, but in the years since we’ve discussed the likelihood that our holiday gesture probably was tossed in the trash by the time we returned to our apartment that evening. Short of a visitation by a ghost and three spirits in the night, you just can’t force Christmas “on a body.”

And I’ll have to admit that as the Christmas pasts pile up, the holiday has lost some of its glitter for me as well. I have often thought about Grandpa Mike’s December antagonism and wondered how it came to pass. My bet is a large part of it was rooted in that Christmas icon, the family Christmas tree.

When you see tree after tree whiz by on the tops of cars (this year I saw the first green victim the day before Thanksgiving), the pressure is on and mounts by the day. There’s no way around it. December is here. Best get it done.

Perhaps it’s the decision making I dread: select a cut tree or fell one yourself? Head for Freddie’s or a tree farm? Tradition in our household has so far precluded the decision on“real or plastic.”(I see Jim Werkhoven has made his decision. As I pedaled past his place the other day, I noticed a nice looking aluminum tree in the window.  Just wonderin,’ Jim, do you have one of those revolving color wheels for nighttime illumination?) And the same holds true for the variety of tree. What fir fer us? Douglas, always. It’s a fair weather day, so I head for Reiners’ tree farm at the south-east end of the Lewis Street Bridge. One decision down.

Dale Reiner has propagated Christmas trees on the site for a number of years. I meet up with him at the sales center which consists of a trailer and a refreshments tent. Mr. ChristmasMy task this year is finding a house-sized tree. Two years ago when I was here, most of the trees in the north lot were too large. When you select a tree, you also need to factor in the “wide open spaces”effect: out in nature a tree looks smaller than it really is. Nothing like a living room space to take the full measure of a tree. I ask Dale about the younger lot south of the road. “Well, we didn’t shear them this year,” he says, “Didn’t think we could market them, so we spared the expense. But you can find a good tree out there. I’m selling ‘em for ten bucks apiece unshorn.” More decision-making: sheared or natural? This one’s a bit trickier. Our last “au natural” tree came from Kurt’s Vegetable Stand and proved to be a disaster in fir clothing. Its trunk, we discovered when we went to set it in the stand, was shaped like a lightning bolt. Our scoliosis tree we called it, and so a merry scoliosis Christmas it was. Do I want to revisit that scenario? But ten bucks a tree…hmmm. Guess where I’m headed!

And it’s a jungle out there, those unshorn fir, and I’mSo many trees! supposed to choose a winner from this forest? This is the most critical time in the process: selecting just the perfect tree from an entire woods. As if there weren’t enough variables to consider, there’s the paramount one: the approval of the Missus of the house. Here’s where the male of the household is most vulnerable: aesthetics and symmetry seem beyond the masculine jurisdiction. A friend of mine, caught up in the spirit of the season and being a husband of magnanimity in a moment of weakness went out unassisted, chose a tree, purchased it, and carried it home in triumph. His efforts were rewarded by his wife’s terse comments (not verbatim, but you get the idea): “Out, out, out with it! I’m not having that ugly brute in this house!!!” And out it went post haste and my friend hit the Christmas tree trail once again—this time his wife was leading the way.Thus was born a long standing family joke. “Could we come over and see the ‘tree of the week?’” Yes, every year it must be the perfect tree. Anything less and Christmas is in jeopardy. In Truman Capote’s heartwarming memoir “The Christmas Story” young Capote (Buddy) and his Aunt Sook go to the woods and select the perfect tree. On their way home a couple of uppity women in a fine car pull along side and offer them twenty-five Depression era cents for their tree. Miss Sook replies, “Why I wouldn’t take a dollar for this tree!” “A dollar!” the woman exclaims, “fifty cents, my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” Miss Sook’s response: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

Miss Sook was right. I wander through the tree lot, trying to avoid the craters left from trees removed for landscaping (I don’t always succeed) and each tree is different. Hmmmmmm...The sun is low on the horizon, and if I walk south, the trees are just silhouettes; I have to backtrack through the lot, sun at my back, to see each prospect clearly. It’s a sun dazed one dimensional perspective, at best. Too skinnyThat old phrase, “Can’t see the trees for the forest,” must have been coined in exasperation by a Christmas tree hunter.


I wander back and forth through the lot, scour row after row.   Too bushy






I don't think soThis one, perhaps

In the center of the lot I am swallowed up by  the heady fragrance of the fir; I’m just a stranger lost in the forest. After an hour or so of threading my way through the trees, some begin to look familiar: “You again?” they seem to say.

At last from the forest a tree speaks to me. This may be the one. Dare I hope? Looks good from the other side, too, don’t you think? Ah, HaSuccess of the season turns on my decision, so I circle the tree two or three times—clockwisAin't she a beaute—push aside the branches and this time peer in at the trunk to check for any curvatures of the spine. Counterclockwise two or three times, and finally to seal the deal, shear off the prize with the complimentary Reiner Tree Farms buck saw.


I drag my green trophy to the truck and wrestle it into the bed. Don’t know…looks pretty big.Loaded for ChristmasThat’s a whole lot of tree for ten bucks, I think, and head to the “sales department” to settle up with Dale. “What do I owe you?” I asked. The size of the tree may have ramped up the price. But Dale proves true to his word: “Ten bucks”is the firm quote. But I have another idea. Whenever we meet—one businessman to another-- Dale asks me how the honey business is. “Would you take a quart of honey for the tree?” I offer. “You got yourself a deal,” he smiles. A great barter is one that satisfies both parties. 

 The Barter paid

If you’re in the market for fresh tree, I encourage you to visit the Reiner tree farm. Not only are Dale’s prices reasonable; they’re probably the best deal in the Valley. (Most certainly if you have something to barter.) A jaunt to Reiner’s tree loReiner amenitiest is a great way to enjoy the fresh Valley air, get some exercise, and either continue a family tradition or begin one. After you’ve honed your decision-making skills afield, stop by the refreshments tent for refreshments and help yourselves: hot coffee for you; hot cocoa and cookies for the kiddos. Not bad, not bad at all Now when the house cools at night, the tree’s woodsy fragrance greets us in the morning. So much nicer than the smell of an aluminum pie tin or the non smell of a plastic tree. Fir or plastic: what’s the decision there? The best Christmas tree ever, in my opinion, glows warmly in our living room. And I found it myself—unassisted—the most perfect tree in the whole of Reiners’ lot, in the world perhaps. Perfect, yes indeed… for you know, there’s never two of anything.

Christmas 2010




Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Warm Hearth in the Valley…

Bless the hearth a’blazing there,

With smoke ascending like a prayer;…

Song: “Bless this House

Got gulls

The recent seige of temperatures in the low teens has passed, and the news folk have led their nightly news with the same old stories of woe: split pipes have thawed and many homeowners in the area are “freakin’,” and on the phone with an urgent 911 call to the plumbers, their homes a’ flood with unplanned, unwanted water features. This news, like the first snowfall in the area, is Pete and repeat. But even old news is news and must be given its due, I guess.

Water expands when it freezes. We all know that and accept the physics we are dealt, but regardless, all of us in these northern climes have had experience with frozen and burst pipes. I know I have: a flash fountain in the garage (and two geysers, I’m ashamed to admit), a pump pressure gauge frozen, the shower drain ice-seized. We soon learn our home’s vulnerable spots and this time of year hasten to protect them. One of the many things my dad taught me there on the river where we had some dreadful cold snaps was to disconnect and drain the garden hoses. “Drag ‘em over a tree branch,” Dad advised. And I’ve done that ever since we’ve lived in the Valley. According to the evening news there are many folks who turned a deaf ear to Dad’s advice—and now they’re on the phone with the plumber.

But there’s another weather-related bit of news much more disturbing than a busted pipe and a plumbing bill. This news out of the Bellingham area where authorities found the body of a homeless person in a sleeping bag under a bridge. Apparently neither the bridge nor the bag was protection enough against the single digit night temperatures. The cause of death was never mentioned; as so often happens with the news, there was no follow-up information. Just that someone’s body was found in a sleeping bag under a bridge. That’s all. Considering the victim, I suppose the COD could have been any number of things, but given the three days of “arctic blast,” a death by freezing seemed quite possible. Not a very pleasant way to exit life: to freeze to death in a sleeping bag under a bridge somewhere--alone.

As I walk the Valley this morning all bundled up, looking pretty much like an ambulatory cocoon, Jack Frost not only nipping at my nose but pinching it, too, I think about that homeless person. I’m sorry, but I simply can’t wrap my mind around being homeless. It’s inconceivable to me how a human being could live that way during our northern latitude winters. Think of the countless amenities our homes provide. And many are just that—amenities. But the basics: protection from the weather, a safe, dry place to live and sleep—and most of all the comfort of warmth during these days and nights of frost. One wonders what unfortunate turn of events could make all that  disappear, precipitating a descent into homelessness with little protection other than a bridge over one’s head and a flimsy sleeping bag to call home.

On my outward trek it is comforting to note smoke drifting from so many chimneys: the de Vries’s, Martys’, homes on the High Rock hillside.  



Hillside warmth

And I look east, locate our big walnut tree, then past the honey shed—and finally to our roof and chimney, smoke curling softly northward. I know Thanksgiving is past, but you shouldn’t need a special day to be grateful. And very thankful, too, I am this time of year for our woodstove, a woodshed full of dry firewood and the warmth they provide. Be it ever so humble, home is the place where you hang your hat; home is what you go home to; home is where the home fires burn. But for me, home is where the hearth is.