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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Giving Tree…

Maple honey from right here in the Valley? Unless you’re a local beekeeper, you probably are Swiss Hall Maplenot aware that our local Big Leaf maple trees (Acer macrophyllum) are a mid-spring nectar source. When the maple trees flower the last couple weeks of April and early May, they blossom forth pendulous clusters of small, bell-shaped flowers yellowish-green in color. The clusters ripen into a bundle of winged seeds which spin to earth helicopter-like when they mature. Big Leaf maples are hit and miss nectar sources for honeybees because the spring rains usually prevent the bees from foraging afield. Further complicating the gathering of maple honey is the strange malady afflicting honeybees these days: the colonies that do survive the winter frequently have a field force too weak to collect the nectar. And this is a shame because of all the nectar sources present in the Valley, maple honey is the most unique. At the risk of sounding like a honey snob, Broad Leaf maple honey has a distinct bouquet that greets your nose when you remove the container lid. Not in the least like maple syrup is this honey with its hint of anise (licorice-like)flavor. The color compares to the blossoms themselves, a clear, delicate yellow. If you want a flavorful cup of tea, a brimming spoonful of maple honey will spice up your brew and trip the light fantastic on your taste buds.

There are maple trees in the Valley older than the hills. Perhaps older than the Valley even. Whether these venerable old Acer macrophyllum are remnants of some ancient Valley forest that gave way to pastureland, I’m not sure. However, they are landmarks in the Valley, especially the two on the corner by Swiss Hall. A pair of gnarly giants they stand, forcing spin-outs to opt off the road into the field beyond rather than risk a collision. When raspberries grew in the fields, the shortest rows were always just off that corner: the first hundred feet or so leveled by foolhardy drivers who failed to plan ahead but chose to avoid the vast trunks of the twin maples.

Years ago another monster maple stood guard at the south end of the lower Riley Slough bridge. The old tree was way A tree once grew...past its prime when I first knew it. Full of dry rot and decay, its big limbs dripping moss, the tree was the kind timber men called a widow-maker because of the likelihood huge dead limbs would snap and crash to the ground without warning. One spring a stiff gale toppled the old tree, spreadeagled it into the field it had shaded during Valley evenings since the dawn of evening itself. A root ball big as a wall thrust up alongside the road like the sole of an old boot. I cut two or three truckloads of firewood from its old bones, hauled them home and cremated them in the woodstove—respectfully, of course.

Every time I pass the spot where the old tree stood, I sense its presence yet. Of a summer eve its spirit casts a cooling shadow; on windy days I hear an eerie hum where its branches scraped the sky. Or a crow may caw where there is no perch. I look up. Nothing. Only empty sky. In fall the sound of ghost leaves skittering across the road reminds me the old tree marks the seasons still. I don’t know if you believe in an afterlife of trees, but that maple was so long a part of the Valley I maintain its essence remains, a fixture in memory, at least.

If these giant maples have (or had) histories—and they must—I know nothing of them. But there is another huge maple in the Valley, all other histories aside, known for its charity: the Giving Tree, I call it. The Giving Tree The Giving Tree stands solitary where the Lower Loop Road insects with Frohning Road and the particulars of its gifting are as follow. One day before the New Millennium ticked over, Sandy Frohning drove by the old maple and noticed a neatly bundled floral bouquet nestled next to the massive trunk. Sandy’s first thoughts were not floral but thoughts of romance—romance somehow run amuck.

Now who, at some time or other, hasn’t stood in line at the grocery check-out line in the company of some young man, or perhaps one not so young, and couldn’t help notice in his arms or hands a solitary purchase, a cellophane-swaddled bouquet, roses, perhaps, or some such floral nosegay? Then you think, “Ah, ha—poor fella… said one word too many, didn’t you!” Now Sandy’s thoughts ran along those lines. What she had chanced upon, she imagined, was an apology rejected: that word misspoken (or not spoken at all?) caused a wound too deep for a bundle of flowers to band-aid. A woman scorned—and scornful. And so chuck it, she did, out the window of her car as she passed the old maple. Waste a beautiful bouquet? Sandy scooped up the spurned flowers and brought them home for decoration.

Spring came and one day Tim Frohning drove up on the Giving Tree and noticed a solemn gathering of people clustered beneath its budding branches. One of the congregants wielded a shovel and was removing dirt at the base of the old maple. Tim, quick to assess the crowd was not a County crew or a PUD  squad, stopped to satisfy his curiosity. Also one never  to pass up the opportunity to perpetrate his liberal sense of humor on an unsuspecting victim, Tim inquired, “What are you digging for? Gold?” A discussion ensued and the mystery of the Giving Tree was revealed. The small gathering was a family. Sometime previous they had visited the Valley, were impressed with its beauty, peaceful fields and pastures. That sturdy old maple, they decided, was the perfect site for their beloved relative’s eternal repose. The gathering was funereal: the family had brought their relative’s cremains for deposit in their final resting place. Sandy had unwittingly been a grave robber.

February the following year, some of the Valley folk had a small social gathering to celebrate the annual appearance of that prescient rodent, the ground hog, for a bit of pre-spring reveling (or to lament six more  interminable weeks of winter, can’t remember which it was that year). During the small talk of the evening, the topic of the charitable maple tree and its floral gift came up. The anecdote prompted a gasp from Judy Cabe. The past Christmas season she happened by the Giving Tree and noticed a miniature Christmas tree, fully decorated, discarded at the base of its gnarly trunk. In the spirit of the season, and reasoning that a deciduous tree bereft of leaves and dormant, would be oblivious to its Christmas adornment, Judy decided to include the slumbering maple’s gift in her own Christmas festivities, loaded up the offering and took it home. Gasp! More grave robbing!

There may very well be others who were the beneficiaries of the Giving Tree’s charity and unknowingly made off with a deceased’s memorials. You, perhaps? And Sandy Frohning maintains that each spring, bulbs planted to provide perpetual color bloom beneath the Giving Tree, nourished by the cremains slumbering there.

I’m sure the bereaved family thought our picturesque Valley would be an idyllic site for their relative’s permanent repose; that big maple a living grave marker, some shade for a shade. I wonder if they are aware, though, of the extra attention that spot and the Giving Tree have received because of their decision. Can one really rest in peace with all those comings and goings and snatching up of gifts? The Valley has always seemed a place of peace and quiet to me. And for the most part I guess it is—unless, that is,  you’re dead.Old Valley resident

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  1. The Ramey family rented the house which is now Alden's house for about 5 years or so in the 1970's. The Ramey family (Steve, his twin brother, and their Mom) and my family were good friends. Myself and my 3 older brothers, and our Mom would see Steve Ramey, his twin brother, and their Mom every Sunday at the Episcopal church in town on Lewis Street. Also Steve Ramey taught myself and my brother Dan how to swim at Steffen's Pool on the Ben Howard Road, and at Hal Moe Pool in Snohomish (Steve had a job as a swim instructor there). Steve and I would run into each other quite a bit when I worked at Boeing for a few years. Steve still works there and lives in Marysville. Steve and his wife stopped by to say hi last Summer and to visit "The Giving Tree" where they placed his Dad's ashes years ago. Steve visits "The Giving Tree" whenever he is in the area and he planted the Crocus that bloom their in the Spring. Steve also is the one that places flowers and such their when he's in the area. Steve told me that when they lived in Tualco Valley he and his brother would ride their bikes around the Loop Road all the time and that he always remembered after they had moved away "The Big Maple Tree" as he referred to it and how peaceful the Valley was and thats why they placed his Dad's ashes their.

  2. Now, thanks to the Beebes, we know "the rest of the story." I hope others read your explanation because after what gets thrown at us during a lifetime, we all deserve some peace and quiet--and memorials to validate our brief time here on Earth. Thanks again. TMJ