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Monday, February 28, 2011

And the Oscar Goes to…Ed’s Barn!

Prize winning barn

This time of year the whole world’s agog over the Academy Awards. I’m sure even those planets with life intelligent or otherwise will be watching from deep space, as well. Granted the“Oscars” are the most watched awards show on commercial television, but in my opinion it’s just another awards show, and an awards show is a network’s way of saying: “We can’t come up with any creative—or decent—programming at the moment, so let’s gather together a bunch of people who glitter when they smile and sing, tell them they may have an award coming and then parade them in front of a camera and watch them hope they win one!”

And when the evening of the Big Night looms, inevitably this lament from my wife: “This year we haven’t seen a single movie up for an Academy Award!”(We’ve seen one of the nominees this season, so the tune’s in a slightly different key: “We’ve only seen ONE movie up for this year’s Oscars!”)

By now you’ve gathered I’m not much for movies. When I was a boy growing up in a small town in north central Washington, our little movie theatre was the social hub of the town when the weekend rolled around. Those days I could sit through the newsreel, two cartoons, and two full-length feature movies without a single yawn. Must have been all that sugar in those Jujubes. But even then, if memory serves me, I was more entertained by the activity in the lobby than the action on the silver screen. When I sit in front of the watch a film these days, soon after MGM’s regal lion roars and bares his fangs, I’m directing dream movies myself, only to awake when the credits scroll down the screen or when someone yells, “I can’t hear the movie with you running that chain saw full throttle over there!”

But I watched a movie the other night, sat for nearly two hours and didn’t nod once. And the movie was hardly Academy Award caliber either. I can’t imagine its title ever crossed the lips of a single member of the Academy when they selected the 1991 nominees.

When the machine gun fire in the microwave ceased, I served up two big bowls of Orville’s “Theatre Style Buttered,” and we queued up the movie. Tonight’s feature attraction, Past Midnight. The DVD case said: “PAST PASSION! PAST TERROR! PAST MURDER!” Yeah, come on! Light my fire! Scare me! Terrify me!…just keep me awake.

The female lead was Natasha Richardson. My wife, who knows such things, tells me Natasha was the daughter of British actress Vanessa Redgrave (“She smiles just like her mother” whenever she smiled…and she smiled a lot) and wife of actor Liam Neeson. Natasha died as a result of a freak skiing accident, my wife reminds me, while taking lessons at a ski resort in Quebec in March of ‘09. The forty-five year old actress sustained severe brain trauma when she fell and struck her head during a lesson. She died hours later in a New York City hospital. Neither my wife nor I had heard of Rutger Hauer who played the male lead. Hauer had a Teutonic look about him--that blue-eyed German thing--would have seemed right at home in a German SS uniform, sitting behind a clunky desk beneath one stark light bulb conducting a steely-eyed interrogation of some hapless WWII POW soon to be doomed to death.

Here’s the rather feeble storyline. Ben Jordan (Hauer) has been released from prison where he served a fifteen year sentence for murdering his pregnant wife. Laura (Richardson) is the social worker assigned to his case, help Ben transition to life beyond prison walls. Ben maintains his innocence, claims he was framed, and Laura, who sees something truthful in those piercing blue eyes, sets out to prove to herself he is. Laura’s ex-boyfriend--now just friend--Steve, thinks otherwise and warns her not to trust her client. But Laura has that woman’s intuition thing going…and besides, Ben is soooo handsome. The predictable happens: soon she’s romantically involved. And then there’s Ben’s intellect. “I’ve been reading through your history,” Laura tells him. “You have an IQ of 146.” Ben reflects a moment, fixes Laura with those shifty eyes, and replies: “Ted Bundy had an IQ of 150.” Whooooa! Now the audience is on Steve’s side! And it doesn’t help that Jordan frequently shows up at Laura’s home unannounced. (Is the creep stalking her?) After a string of terrifying incidents, Laura reconsiders her intuition.

Before you go in search of your heart medicine, I’ll leave you to wonder about the lives, loves, and lustings of Ben and Laura and get on with this post’s real purpose.

Past Midnight was filmed locally. Riding tandem with the storyline were shots of downtown Snohomish, the Ave. D Bridge over the Snohomish River,…Ben and Laura rendezvous in a Snohomish tavern (The Oxford Tavern?). And there’s the spring rain, too, lots of it, dripping relentlessly from moss draped alders. Steve (on Laura’s behalf, of course) lands Ben a job at Wheeler’s meat packing house on Maple Street. (Reader board in the parking lot announces the deals of the week.) And wait…what’s that building across the street? Is that the old Snohomish Junior High? Certainly is…and shouldn’t I know…I taught in that building for at least ten years….)

But now Laura leaves her Snohomish office (which looks suspiciously set somewhere in Seattle’s Pioneer Square) and travels to Ellensburg where fifteen years ago Ben not only stabbed his pregnant wife, but recorded the gruesome act with a Super 8 movie camera. Laura wants to interview some of the folks who knew Ben, hear their side of the story. Ben’s father-in-law, a crusty old metal worker, tells Laura to “get off my property” as soon as he learns her mission. Visibly shaken by his inhospitality, Laura next heads to a farm owned by Ben’s best friend Todd Canipe who, with the help of his younger, “mentally challenged” brother Larry runs the place. She wants to interrogate Larry who had been called upon to testify at the murder trial.

Back on the road with Laura. The camera follows her old Jeep down a country road. But just a minute, here…those are not alfalfa fields…aren’t those rows of…raspberries! What? This isn’t Ellensburg: it’s the Tualco Valley! And to our delight the camera follows Laura’s Jeep down Tualco Loop Road until it slows and turns into Tony Broers’ driveway, drives past that familiar white farmhouse with the red trim, past those primeval poplar trees….The next shot is inside a lofty barn, a bovine cathedral, its vaulted roof a work of intricate carpentry. Shafts of light stream from two windows and spotlight Laura as she caresses the nose of a solitary horse. On location She speaks a few horse endearments to the sorrel pony and then questions Larry, the “slow” brother, who haltingly puts into words what he remembers from his testimony at the murder trial all those years ago.

Next shot: Laura and Larry’s elder brother Todd stroll up Tony’s driveway talking about…well, who cares, really. We’re looking for Valley landmarks. “There’s Swiss Hall! That’s Werkhovens’ farm! There are the dairy barns and calf pens!” Camera shot north: “Van Hulles’ barns and dairy!” Camera shot south: “Is that Martys’ house? Don’t ever remember that blue paint.”At this point local color upstages the storyline; we don’t hear a word Laura and Todd exchange (“Hey, that’s Tony’s old green farm truck!”) as they saunter up the driveway.Farm truckWe have to replay the segment. Laura and Mr. Canipe say their goodbyes (not to spoil the ending, but they will meet again). Barn shedShe climbs into her Jeep. Mr. C. heads toward Tony’s tractor, tiller attached, apparently to do some cultivating of the berry rows.

Twenty years have wrought changes to the movie set. Gone is the white paint and red trim on the old farmhouse. The house has a new look now: white, still, but with a muted gray trim. And new owners: Ginnifer and Ed bought the house and farm from Tony. The front porch and second story gable have had a makeover. Ed's HouseA new metal roof replaced the old hand split cedar shakes. The towering poplars that guarded the driveway disappeared some years ago. Ed tired of the shock and awe coming from his new roof every time a windstorm roared through the Valley, stripping limbs from the aging tops, sending them plummeting down on the roof. So the trees had to go. The big dairy barn remains pretty much the same. 

The big expansive hayloft now provides storage space for stacks of berry flats. No trace of the small stall that housed Laura’s pony. The filmmakers took artistic liberties with the barn, selecting the hayloft for the shoot because of its open rafters and vaulted ceiling.Lofty Barn The lighting effect from two south facing windows was an important consideration, too. Hay mows are for hay, so the lonely little horse had to be hoisted to the loft for the shoot (after all, what’s a barn without a horse?”).

I’d rate Past Midnight a PYE for “plug your ears” because of the occasional strong language. Also when Ben and Laura start grappling in her parlor, you might want to send the kiddos to the kitchen to refresh the popcorn bowl. That should allow just enough time for the bedclothes to settle down.

Other than the fact Richardson is a treat for the eyes, the movie has little else to recommend it. A second rate “slasher” movie at best: mediocre acting, jaded storyline—some of it poorly developed—an uncreative screenplay…hardly Oscar material. Although the Valley and that picturesque old barn made only cameo appearances, they both stayed true to character. And the barn never muffed a single line.Ed's BarnA special thanks to Ginnifer Broers for braving a very cold morning to show me the barn and allow me to take a few candid shots of that stately—but drafty--old building.Barn, front view

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

One GAME Warden in the Valley…

Feb. snow

Between today’s La Nina’s snow tantrums I thought I’d better take my Valley exercise while I can. According to the Doppler guys and their weather “models,” (no, I’m not talking about those vapid blonde weather gals, either), access to and from the Valley the next couple of days might best be done in a County snowplow.

But now the sun is shining as I approach the Swiss Hall parking lot where an official looking ( “gun”metal gray and shortwave antenna-equipped) pickup idles. I can see some sort of badge on the driver’s side door. Ah, ha! I see this pickup’s been deputized! I sidle up to the truck, stoop to avoid the glare, but before I can make out the official message, a friendly voice says, “Yes, I’m a game warden.” I stand to examine the source of the voice. A young man wearing an official jacket with an official government patch on the sleeve grins out at me from the cab. But it is an unofficial grin. He has a tidy looking beard coming but looks like he should be at home having his mom adjust his tux and bowtie for his senior prom, topping him off with a strategically pinned boutonniere.

Lance Stevens, Fish and Wildlife Officer #W145, is an affable young man of an age, if he chose to hold you at gunpoint with a “FREEZE! Game warden!”  you’d double over in laughter. I ask him if the Valley needs close scrutiny these days. “No,” he replies, “We’re past hunting seasons and the rivers are closed.” He’s sunning himself in his official government truck, doing some “idling” paperwork when I interrupt him. I’m impressed from the onset by a government official who doesn’t treat a citizen officiously; it’s just one man to another when we talk, like we’re longtime Valley neighbors. 

As you know, The Ripple has a strange sense of humor; I pat the pockets of my sweatpants and say, “Oh, oh! I forgot my license at home!” Lance laughs, and says, “You don’t need a license to walk in the Valley!” (Oh, Lance, Lance, but what about artistic license, eh?) I tell him my huntin’ days are over—got that and skiing out of my system when I was a kid. The only shotgunning I do these days, I tell Lance the Kid is self-defense: shooting moles with my .410 “molester.” I briefly explain my tactics: “when the earth moves, push it back with # six shot.” After all, a man has to protect his property. Second Amendment rights, remember? Lance smiles and then remembers the patch on his jacket. “You know that body-grip traps are illegal, don’t you?”Our dialogue shifts quickly to the year 2000 initiative that forbade trapping critters with “inhumane” body-grip traps.

I tell Officer W145 I know all about this nonsensical directive sponsored by animal rights groups (i.e. PETA, for one). In 2000 these groups rallied around Initiative 713 which declared it a “gross misdemeanor to capture an animal with a steel-jawed leghold trap, neck snare, or other body-gripping trap.” The initiative passed and now by legislative decree it is illegal for one to use such a trap to control these persistent little earthmovers--even on his own property. Little matter that they turn your landscape into a moonscape, drill subterranean air ducts through your flower and shrub roots, excavate their own personal catacombs beneath your well-maintained lawn.

“You know,” I say, “this subject came up a couple years ago on a talk show I listen to.” The“Kid”grins, and says, ‘Dori Monson!” “That’s right,” I say, “I even called the show to weigh in on the issue.” The issue being the rights of one hard working entrepreneur, The Mole Guy, to make an honest living while at the same time providing a valuable service to the home gardener.

“That was my case,” Officer Stevens responds. Not the bravado or swagger of a lawman, but a mere statement of fact. "You’re kidding me!” I exclaim. (I’m always surprised at how often the “Six Degrees of Separation”phenomenon carries over to the Valley news; Officer Stevens and I may not agree “for the record” just what constitutes justice and individual property rights, but we do listen to the same radio show.)

“Were you subpoenaed?And did you testify?” I ask. “Yes, I did,” Lance nods. The “Kid”goes on to say that the case went all the way to the State Supreme Court, has yet to be resolved and is now working its way back through the lower courts. “And The Mole Guy?” I asked. “He’s still running his business until the case is decided,” Officer Stevens informs me. (Thus the sign I saw on a tree the other day.)

I seize the opportunity to take advantage of Lance’s candor concerning the issue of squeezing little varmints to death. “Part of the foolishness of this whole business,” I complain, “are some of the inconsistencies.” I mention it is not illegal to manufacture or sell mole traps—you can buy them in any hardware or garden supply outlet—but they’re against the law if you use them yourself or employ the services of “hit man” to trap them on your property. “And snap traps,”I continue, “for rats and mice:  they’re legal.” The “Kid” nods. “They’re body-grippers,” I say, thinking about the deep groove a snap trap striker imprints across the cranium of a mouse. “Yes, but mice are ‘unclassified.’”I laugh,“Try telling that to a woman!” And what qualifies a mole for “classification,"anyway! “I look at the numerous mounds of earth dotting the cornfields and pasture land. “Last I heard, moles are not an endangered species,” I exclaim. Lance agrees they’re not.

Officer Stevens, continuing his candor on the subject admits it’s a “poor use of government resources” to enforce I-713. “And,”Lance continues,”if someone like yourself sets a trap on your property, we generally turn our heads—but 713 is the law and it’s our job to enforce it—regardless.” In fact the initiative has created an arena of contentiousness, pitting “The Mole Guy” against commercial exterminator businesses, I’m told. Mole Guy, small businessman that he is, is still is making a living commercially trapping moles. “And we have the big guys breathing down our necks, crying ‘Foul,’” Lance shakes his head.

We move on to other topics, other responsibilities of the Fish and Wildlife Department. Stevens tells me he’s lucky to be in an area of law enforcement that’s much less stressful: no domestic violence calls, no homicides, no home invasion burglaries or bank heists to deal with. “Mostly illegal hunting issues. Out of season stuff. Some drug problems.” I ask him if he’s ever come across any horticulture of the “controlled substance” kind. (Big problem, this, in the State and National Forests of eastern Washington.) “Oh, yes,” Lance nods.

“By the way,”I ask, “I thought today was a furlough day for State workers. Why are you out here in the Valley on your “day off?” “Just doing some paperwork afield, some patrolling, making sure everyone’s behaving themselves.” He’s about to make his way up in the hills off the Ben Howard Road. But before we go our separate ways, friendly Officer Lance Stevens gives me his business card. I introduce myself, tell him I’m out in the Valley often, do a little snooping myself. “Well, if you ever see anything you think might be our business, give me a call.” “Be glad to,” I say, and as I take one last look at the official-looking Fish and Wildlife patch on Lance’s shoulder, I can’t help but send him merrily on his way with a parting shot. “No offense, or anything,” I say, “but if The Mole Guy ever needs a character witness to support his case, I’ll be glad to drop whatever I’m doing and head for the witness box!”

Friday, February 18, 2011

But Wait! There’s More!…Storytelling in the Valley…

Captain and 1st Mate I have one more question to ask Gramma. Well…not a question, really, but a request. But it’ll have to wait because Gramma sets her cup down with a thump, looks at me. A tentative smile widens into a grin. “Do you know what happened to me?” Now Gramma is not a newcomer to strange events, and I expect what she is about to tell me will be no less than strange. “NOW what happened, Gramma?”I ask.

“That last flood we had, remember?” I tell her I not only remembered, but wrote a post about it, took pictures…provided topnotch coverage. “Well,” she continues, “I was out of milk and probably should have waited, but…”

Out of milk in a Valley filled with dairies and cows. Now I can understand Gramma’s predicament. I mean, after all, there’s the morning’s cereal to drown. And that warm glass of milk to help you sleep--milk and toilet paper… don’t we all get nervous when we’re out of either one?

“…I thought I’d run down to Tim and Sandy’s for a half gallon.” I remember that night: the pelting rain, temps in the mid-fifties, a flood watch on all the local rivers. But when there’s no milk in the fridge, it’s a minor crisis. So seventy-seven year-old Joan Snow—Gramma—backed her black Mercury sedan out of the garage and with Charlie the Spaniel riding shotgun, drove off into the storm for a half gallon of milk.

On the lower Loop Road she passed a “water over the roadway” sign. “I know the State Patrol will fine you if you’re caught driving through floodwaters,” says Gramma. “I know you’re not supposed to….” Now anyone familiar with the Valley—Joan Snow, most certainly—knows the quarter mile stretch of road between Andy and Steve Werkhovens’ homes is one of the first areas to submerge during flood events.The Bay of Gramma “But I thought the water might have gone down,” she mused. Not a totally irrational assumption, considering flood waters along that stretch recede as rapidly as they rise, oftentimes draining away before the County crews have time to remove the warning signs.

As she approached that low stretch of roadway, water black and rippling gleamed in the headlight beams: the road was underwater. “I didn’t think it was very deep, so I started to ease slowly across.” (How high’s the water, Gramma?” I think.) Suddenly she realized she’d made a mistake. “I couldn’t see to back up; I had to keep going. I could see current on the riverside of the road, but I had to keep going.” Creeping through water nearly up to her doors, Gramma plowed the big sedan to the opposite shore. “I made it across ok,” she sighed. On to the farm for that half gallon of milk.

At the dip in Frohning Road Gramma again splashed through floodwaters. But she had arrived—to the dismay of Tim and Sandy who were not in the least pleased that Gramma had gone out in the storm and was driving around in the dark with the Valley filling up with water. Now for that jug of milk….

But Tim and Sandy were not about to let Gramma drive off into the night unescorted. Grandson Matt fired up the big John Deere and led his grandmother back up the road where there were more surprises in store for her. “I was only there long enough to pick up the milk…not more than three, maybe five, minutes, “she explained, “but the water was a lot higher in that dip than before.”Onto the lower Loop Road, Matt piloting the big John Deere. The plan was for the tractor to push the water aside and Gramma would follow close behind in the shallower wake. Into the river they went, Matt plowing the way. (How high’s the water now, Gramma?) “The water was over the hood of the car!” she exclaimed. “But I kept going…the hood was tight enough to keep the water out, I guess…I thought I would start floating at anytime…at any moment I’d be washed away! But I kept on.”

Now think of all the flood coverage you’ve seen on the evening news over the years. After dramatic footage of homes submerged up to the eaves, what’s always the next thing you see? Vehicles, rooflines barely visible above the roiling current…cars and pickup trucks, swept away and their drivers with them. Why? They drove into the floodwaters, thinking: “I know where the road is, drive it all the time….”Yes, but did you drive it with a portion of roadway washed away by the current?”N. HighRock R.,'06 (Last summer I talked to a fellow who lived in the house at the corner of Sargent Road during the 2006 flood event. “When we came back to check on the house, instead of wading up the driveway,we marched across the cornfield and came up on it from behind. Glad we did. When the water went down, we saw the flood had washed a ditch twelve feet deep right through the driveway!”)

I look across at Gramma and think how close she came to missing out on those donuts--and me this interview. “Joan Snow,” I think, “washed out to sea…lost for good…never heard from again!” (How high’s the water NOW, Gramma!)

I was sure it was her John Deere breakwater that saved her. “No,” she exclaims, “It was my car, my big, heavy car. It was too heavy to float…that’s the only thing that saved me! My heavy car saved my life!”

Gramma, Charlie, and that half gallon of milk made it home safely, but not without some water damage. “My feet got wet, and the floorboard of the seat behind me had four inches of water!”she laughs. There again is that fine line between tragedy and comedy. Gramma had parted the waters and come away laughing. She takes me out to show me that big, black Mercury, the car that saved her life. She points out the high water mark on the floorboard of the backseat, gestures at the hood, shakes her head and repeats, “The water was going right over it, but I kept on going!” I have a flash vision of the sleek black hood, except now it’s the bow of a submarine: “Dive, Dive!” and the last to slip beneath the waves is Gramma, captain’s cap, gold braid and all, perched on her white head, in the conning tower, slamming the hatch shut just as the waters swirl overhead.

Imagine that: close to shipping out for just a half gallon of milk! And free milk, at that. But think of the cost! Now that Gramma is high and dry, the family sees the humor in her narrow escape. Grandma Snow has been granted a Captain’s commission, the spaniel Charlie, First Mate. And the “savior car” has been rechristened the “S.S. Mercury Outboard.”

The next day the Mercury heads for the shop where it’s checked out and detailed, the oil changed, the vehicle scrutinized for water damage. Gramma’s free half gallon of milk rings up a hefty $244! Sandy Frohning comments, “I wish we dairy farmers could get that kind of money for our milk!”

And by the way…that question, that final request I had of Gramma?  “Gramma, tell me your BEST Valley story.” Not much point in making that request now is there!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Valley According to Gramma…

Gramma Snow

This post is a long time coming. No blog about the Tualco Valley would be complete without a visit to the Valley matriarch, Joan Snow. If you’ve been out in the Valley, you’re certain to have seen her gadding about in her black Mercury, heading to town or the opposite way to the Frohning Farm. “Gramma,” we call her because she’s the Grandma of Jessica, my daughter Marika’s friend and has pretty much been a Gramma to both our families since the girls’ friendship began years ago.

The Ripple has been around for almost a year now, and there are things about the Valley I have yet to learn, questions no one has been able to answer for me yet. “Gramma would probably know,” I’d think and let it go at that. Well, wonder no more because I called Gramma last night and asked if I could stop by for a visit, that I had a few questions to ask her about the Valley. “10:00 in the morning would be fine,” Gramma says. “Come for coffee.”

So this morning I gather up my notepad, questions, and camera and at ten o’clock on the dot I’m dodging some pretty impressive chuckholes in her driveway. I jostle to a stop in front of her garage and unload. It is a cheerful Gramma who meets me at the front door. Her sidekick Charlie, a substantial springer spaniel, seems likewise glad to see me. We exchange “Good mornings” and I give Gramma her hostess gift, a half dozen assorted donuts fresh from Safeway’s display case. While she puts the coffee on, I review a few questions I jotted down the night before.

Soon Gramma has the coffee pot groaning away, and she sits down for our chat. I give her a short history of The Ripple, what it’s about, and read her the very first post so she’ll have some idea of what she’s up against. Soon I’m scribbling away while she talks. Gramma shares the history of her place which has been in the family for generations (six, now, with the grandchildren). Originally obtained through a Federal Land Grant (The Homestead Act of 1862), ownership of the property dates to 1877 and the original grant document was signed by our 19th President Rutherford B. Hayes.

“So how long have you lived in the Valley?” I ask. Gramma proceeds to explain her history with the property. After clambering around on a few branches of her Family Tree, I learn Gramma’s great-grandfather Arial Foye was the original Grantee. Her, father, a Smith, married into the Foye line and brought his family to the Valley in 1934 shortly after Gramma was born.

At the time the property was an abandoned dairy farm. The Smith family lived in a farmhouse east of the curve above Swiss Hall on the site of the current home that belonged to our old neighbors the Magees. (In later years the old home was destroyed by fire.) In 1942 the house in which Gramma now resides was built. The Matriarch's  House Her father moved the household goods by horse team and wagon from the old homestead to the new location. While the first and second stories were being built, the family lived in the basement. Because the dairy infrastructure was still in place, it seemed logical to resume dairy operations and a few dairy cows later the farm once again became a dairy. (Gramma still remembers the big metal milk cans.)

I shinny down the Family tree and help myself to a donut while Gramma pours coffee into a lumberjack-size mug—and it is lumberjack strong, too. She helps herself to a donut and between bites, continues.

Those were Depression years and the dairy business suffered. “My father,” Gramma says,” had some experience raising strawberries before he moved to the Valley.” And as was often necessary during the Depression years, farmers had to diversify to eke out a living. Mr. Smith planted a patch of strawberries on a three-quarter acre parcel west of the corner above Swiss Hall and discovered not only that Valley soil was excellent for growing berries, but that the berry business was much better at growing wealth than operating a dairy. And so berry cropping  joined milk production in Valley commerce.

Gramma lived in Tualco until 1954 when she left the Valley for fourteen years to follow her husband Ron Snow to several locations on the West Coast. On a Friday 13, Ron, who was working in California at the time, was notified his job had been phased out and he no longer had a paycheck. He moved his family back to Washington State where he found employment. In 1968 in order to keep the farm in the family, he and Joan bought the old land grant property. Gramma has lived in the Valley ever since.

Now that family history is history, we move on to Valley history and the question that tops my list. “So, ‘Tualco?’” I ask. I learn the original place name was “Qualco,” a native American (the Tulalip tribe, perhaps?) place name but whether it was because of  a“forked tongue,” or what, the white man corrupted the word into “Tualco.” “Qualco” means “meeting of two rivers,” the rivers being the Snoqualmie and the Skykomish which merge west of the Valley and form the Snohomish. Ah, Ha! And I think of the digester project—“Qualco Energy Corp.” An apt bit of atavism to credit the old days and “The Old Ways.”

“Any stories about the Grange?” My next question. Swiss Hall, Gramma says, used to be the Tualco Valley Grange. The current Tualco Valley Grange was a two room schoolhouse, Tualco School, grades 1-8. I knew that part of its history from a fellow I would see at the Grange pancake breakfasts twice a year. Somehow he always ended up beside me and would say, “I used to go to school here, you know.” And so did Gramma. “The steps faced the road, not where they are now. And you entered on the road side of the building,” she said. “I was five years old when I started. Too young, they said, a year too early.” She laughs and continues. “A special session of the school board was called to see what to do with me. The teacher said I was doing just fine so they let me stay.” I learn that the building had large partitions so the one big room could become two classrooms. The teacher went back and forth from one room to the other. The class sizes, as Gramma remembers, were small: five to six students per classroom. Students came from the Valley and also the High Bridge area. Because of low enrollment and the Depression, the school was closed and Valley children went to Central Elementary in Monroe. The High Bridge students were transferred to Duvall.

Sometimes one’s early schooldays prompt strange memories and this morning Gramma shares one of hers. During recess children were assigned the task of noting which way the flag waved and when they returned from play, they were called upon to tell from which compass direction the wind blew. “I have no idea why,” she laughs. “But I remember being assigned the chore and not knowing anything about directions, so I would just make up something.” (Hey, I’ve done that myself many a time—one time too often in fact, but we shall not visit that incident in this post.) Gramma remembers roller skating at school. “Must have been sidewalks,” she muses. She also remembers wanting to skate to school, but that her parents would not allow, so Gramma would carry her skates until she was out of sight. And we all know what she did then, don’t we!

(I reach for a second donut and encourage her to do the same. I’m disappointed when she chooses a cinnamon twist. I was hoping she’d select a chocolate covered one. I know Gramma loves chocolate and made sure my six pack included one pastry with a thick glaze of that sweet darkness. But no, she munches on the twist instead.)

“So the road was paved back then?” a question that dovetailed nicely with another I’ve often pondered: “Why is Tualco Road so curvy? In a Valley with a considerable expanse of flat land, why snake it all over the place?” Gramma sets me straight. “When they laid out the road, the engineers had to make sure it touched every farmer’s property,” she says, “so every Valley landowner had access to the public road.” Apparently the County had to do some fancy gerrymandering to accommodate the randomness of Valley property lines. Thus the weird sharp curves above Swiss Hall. And Tualco Road? Gramma says it used to be “Road 15 B” and remembers a sign that stated that fact printed beneath the grim face of George Washington.

“Gramma,” I ask, “anything special you’d like folks to know about the Valley?” She thinks for a moment, smiles, and says, “It really hasn’t changed very much, you know. And since most of it has been designated ‘farmland,’I don’t think it will either.” And that’s a good thing, a point on which we both agree.

I look at the clock. 12 noon. Two hours gone by just like that. Two hours, in a flash. In between my questions, Gramma and I chat about our families, other Valley happenings, other Valley news. She tells me she remembers the World War II blackouts, how the Valley turned dark after sundown. I tell her I remember a Thanksgiving storm and how the Valley experienced a power outage and was blacked out for a week. We trade stories back and forth.“We live in such a beautiful place,” she says. “When I drive through the Valley, I see the mountains, heaped with snow.” As she speaks, I look out and see a male northern harrier. Its white underside gleams in the light, white as newly fallen snow; such a beautiful bird; its graceful glide, the delicate wingtips…a splendid hawk aloft in a beautiful Valley. Yes, Gramma, it’s a beautiful place to live…. No doubt about that!Our Valley

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lost and ‘Lorn in the Valley…

A formation of trumpeters

Gladys and I took advantage of a lull in a mid-February reaffirmation of winter’s presence and wheeled into the Valley to check things out, take in the Valley air. Snow is predicted in the lowlands the end of the week. Today you can sense it in the air, smell it in the breeze, feel it on your face. I’m not fooled by the sky, those slim blue streaks like a child’s smeared finger painted heaven: it’s a February blue, cold-tinged, unrelenting—by no means the warmth of April’s.

As I approach the Werkhoven Dairy, I see a figure milling about in front of the Werkhoven Dairy sign (Werkhoven Dairy since 1959). I coast to a stop where a pacing Jim Werkhoven marks time. Now this is a rarity indeed: a Werkhoven in the flesh, standing there, vulnerable to the whims of The Ripple—a dairyman apparently at loose ends. As you can guess, the author and his ancient steed grind to a halt. Usually the Werkhoven crew whiz by headed to the next work venue. A quick wave of the hand, the flit of a smile, and they’re just a whirl of memory. I last talked to Jim Werkhoven in the fall during corn harvest ( see post “Wrestling with Mondamin, “ 10/22/2010). While rushing his pickup between cornfields—I could hear the slipstream of air as back noise when we talked by phone about the harvest—Jim and I had the longest conversation I’ve had to date with any of the Valley’s dairymen.

Now here’s Jim on foot and pacing about. The first words out of his mouth: “ I wish I could find one of these smart phones I was smarter than,” he laments. Jim has one of those new fangled phones ( the dairy biz gone hi-tech) you poke at for results—a far cry from the ones you slid your finger into and whirled it clockwise until you connected with the party to whom you wanted to speak. Immediately I gather that Jim must be lost. He’s standing in front of his dairy barns, but the fella is lost. Not until he pokes his GPS app, can he find himself. “Here I am,” he smiles, and shows me the screen. I see an icon of someone, apparently Jim, there in front of the milk house. “Hey,” I say, “Gladys and I are right here beside you. Where are we?” Jim shakes his head. “That thing’s just like my wife,” I say. “I’m used to being ignored, out of the picture, so there you go.” Actually Jim is bragging about the hi-tech functions of his touch-screen marvel. “Look at this,” he grins. “Here’s the dairy farm.” I peer down from some orbiting communications satellite and see the Valley, the fields. “It’s helpful when you want to direct someone to work  a specific piece of ground,” he claims.

The reason Jim’s milling about, the reason I find him somewhat stationary for a change, is he’s waiting for a ride, a pickup truck to take him somewhere on some errand, on some sort of farmin’ business. I tell him I’m surprised to find him here, not rushing to and fro from one end of the Valley to the other. “You know,” he says, “ I’m trying to back off a bit…even took a couple of days off last month.” I’m curious about his two day vacation. “Yeah, we went to Lake Chelan for a couple of days. The wives did some wine tasting. I watched, did a little book reading, and actually got eight hours of sleep one night for once in years.” Nice launch into my next question, one I’ve waited a long time to ask. “I’ve often thought it would be an experience to shadow you for a day,” I tell Jim. “What’s the typical day like here on the Werkhoven Dairy Farm?” “The alarm goes off about four-thirty,”is his first response. I tell Jim there’s nothing alarming about that hour of the day for me: in another, much younger life, I used to change waterlines in the orchards of Eastern Washington and the morning shift started at 4:30 a.m. I know all about stepping out into a chill, twilight world, surreal and fuzzy, a dream fog until that first glacial stream of Columbia River drenches your face and soaks your clothes. “What’s your first chore of the day?” Jim says he’s on the morning feed detail. “Then what?” I ask. “Breakfast,”laughs Jim. He takes his between 8:00 and 9:30, coordinates his bacon and eggs with checking emails, catching up on the never-ending mountains of paperwork, and checking the markets. “How about the end of the day? I ask. “When do you return to the home fires after a day’s work?”At six o’clock Jim tells me he shuts the doors on the work day and turns his back on the barns.Pouring PooDuring our entire conversation I had the feeling Jim had someplace to be, something else important to do. Idle blabbing with the Ripple was not the best use of his time. Gladys and I were circled a few times like we were a couple of sheep being herded back to the flock.

We chit-chat a while longer, talk about bio-diesel and its effects on the world food prices. Jim tells me that thirty per cent of the nation’s corn crop goes for animal feed, the rest for “green” fuels and products. We talk about federal subsidies, and the government’s preoccupation with energy independency. I change course and ask him about this year’s compost from the digester. “You’ll have to ask Andy,” Jim replies. “That’s his area of interest, I’m afraid.” I tell him I’ll give Andy a call, that I have high hopes for my rhubarb and vegetable garden this year.

It’s obvious Jim is anxious to do something, anything, so I thank him for taking the time to visit. He nods and says, “Yeah, I need to be doing something; I’m wasting time here.” Aren’t we all, Jim? Aren’t we all, I think! In fact Gladys and I are already a half hour overdue. Jim marches off toward the barns, leaving me to wonder just how much rest and relaxation he experienced in Chelan. Eight hours of sleep? Ha! I imagine at 4:30 a.m. the ruckus of ravenous cows pervaded Jim’s dreams, cows that were two hundred miles away. Cows that were hungry and lonesome for his company.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Faded Love from the Valley…

Val 1


Those times are fled,




 Val 2

                                                 Those days are through.

Val 3


Val 4  Remember these… 





You surely do!

Val 5

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors…

“He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

                *     *     *     *     *

Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it/Where there are cows…?”

Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

Or dogs, Robert? Did you forget about dogs?Hot Dog!

I’ve lived in the Valley for thirty-six years and in all that time I can’t ever remember exchanging a single word with Johnny Deck. Our knowledge of each other is casual at best, a wave as he passes me if I’m on foot or pedaling Gladys. I always wave back. I doubt John even knows who I am, thinks: “Hmmm, there’s that old guy again”whenever we pass.

If you’ve followed my blog, you are aware of the issue I’ve had with Decks’ dogs (see post “Hounded in the Valley,” 12/15/10). Since that fateful day when I briefly wore an ornery black lab as an anklet, Gladys and I never leave the house without our hi-stream canister of pepper spray. The routine has been to slow warily at Meeus’ house, retrieve the can from my pocket, and ready it for use should I be ambushed by Johnny’s dogs. Twice I’ve had to dismount, canister at the ready, when that belligerent pack of hounds spilled out into the road in a threatening manner. I hung fire, partly out of fear I’d assault myself with drift from my own pepper “bomb,” but mostly because I didn’t want to harm a dog--Johnny’s or anyone else’s.

You can imagine my surprise—and delight—when I pedaled by Decks’ dairy the other day, canister of capsaicin teetering on the handlebar grip, and noticed a three-strand electric fence cordoning off the lawn from the road. “Now isn’t that grand!” I thought, feeling as if a huge weight was removed from my leg. Gladys and I floated home in high spirits.

All this led to my first up close and personal encounter with Johnny Deck and an ensuing dialogue both accusatory and tinged with anger. A day or two after I discovered Johnny’s electrified yard, I headed out for my daily exercise. This time I left my pepper spray holstered as I approached Decks’ place. There was that wonderful fence, just a good shock between me and canine catastrophe. I was so proud of that three-strand protection, you’d have thought the fence was my idea (in fact, the thought had crossed my mind a good many times…). “Well, now, I need to take a picture of that fence,” I mused, show it off, indulge my pride. I halted Gladys and had just snapped a couple photos when John stepped out his front door. I waved, said “Hello,” and he did the same. Back on the bike. Head out for home.Neighborly fence

Sometimes on a whim I swing through the Cascade Meadows parking lot—in the first exit, out the second--except now there’s a white pickup truck blocking my path. I recognize the driver. It is Johnny Deck. He gestures a “we need to talk” for me to stop and rolls down the window. “Why are you taking pictures of my house?” he growls. There are hackles in his tone. I tell him the fence was my subject, not his house. “Are you the guy who’s causing trouble for me!” Now I feel my hackles start to lift: “No,” I reply. “It’s your dogs causing trouble for me!” John asks if I’m the one calling County Animal Control and tattling on him. “Not me,” I say and share with him my meeting with the Animal Control officer the day John’s black lab took a swatch off my sweatpants. “The officer asked if I wanted to file a complaint,” I tell John. “No,” I said. “I don’t want to cause trouble for my neighbors.” I proceed to tell John that according to Animal Control mine was not the first complaint the County had had about his dogs but one of many. “And that’s why,” I told him, “I was so pleased to see your fence. I wanted some photo evidence of your ‘good neighbor’ efforts to make the Valley a safer place.”

Johnny softens  a little when he hears this and launches into a dismal tale about how a dedicated dairyman “accidentally” got into the dog rearing business. “The kids didn’t want me to spay the females,” he lamented. Of course biology took over at that point, thus that pile of roiling dog flesh his yard couldn’t contain. “The lab had a litter of nine,”John says. “Then the spotted female had a litter of six. I got rid of some of ‘em. This one’s spayed,” indicating the large black lab riding shotgun in the truck. “Seems to me,” I remark, “it would have been cheaper in the long run to have ‘em spayed and neutered in the first place. That fence looks like an expensive proposition, let alone the time it took you to string it up.” Johnny nods in agreement. “Thought you had changed livelihoods,” I laugh, “given up on the dairy business and switched to running a dog farm.” John chuckles a bit, shakes his head, drags the back of his hand across his forehead. At this point we’re on much better terms. I thank him again for the fence, for being a good neighbor, for making the Valley a safer place for traffic: cars, bicycles, and walkers. For being a responsible citizen. Johnny smiles and with a friendly good-by wave, returns to his daily chores: running a DAIRY farm. As coincidence would have it, just the day before I had mailed a thank-you card to Mr. Johnny Deck in which I had written the above sentiments. I’m sure it was in his mailbox the entire time we were clearing the air.

So now the Valley is  a safer place, thanks to Johnny Deck. And the next time John sees that “nosy” old guy out in the Valley, I hope he’ll recall with fond memories our serious little chat in front of the horse barn and give me a sociable, full hand wave when next we pass. Maybe stop, even, and as one friendly Valley neighbor to another, talk about whatever doggone subject that may arise.Blind corner unblinded(And thanks, too, Country crew for restoring sight to that blind corner east of Swiss Hall. Now I can glance over my shoulder and see if I’m being followed.)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Entrapment in the Valley…

Cloud Art

A couple days ago Gladys and I were creeping (and creaking) along the Loop Road, had just passed Sargent Road, when I noticed a silver pickup parked next to the calf pens at the Werkhoven Dairy. A young fellow was unloading wooden framework from the truck bed and appeared to be constructing some sort of poultry coop. One wobbly U-turn brings us to a stop behind a silver Toyota. Although I haven’t seen one since I left the orchards of Eastern Washington, I immediately recognize the project under construction. “Is that a starling trap?” I asked, interrupting the man at work. “Yes,” the young man replies. “You know, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen one of those,” I say. “If there’s one thing the Werkhovens have more of than dairy cattle, it’s starlings,”I joke, thinking of the swarms of birds that daily circle the dairy like greedy thunderclouds.

This spot next to the calf pens seems to be a hotbed for avian news. It was here I met the birder Marv Breece last April (see post 4/18 “Four and Twenty Blackbirds”). Marv was sorting out the rare Rusty Blackbird from among the throngs of Redwings,  Brewer’s, crows and starlings foraging around the calf pens. Today I meet Toby Cantwell, falconer. He and his three young daughters have come to the Valley for entrapment. Starlings are the target bird; these bothersome immigrants will provide both food and training material for Toby’s hawks.

“So, got hawks, do you?” I ask. Toby has two presently, a Red-Tailed hawk and a little kestrel, he tells me. He hopes to train the kestrel to hunt starlings. The kestrel had suffered a broken leg, and Toby nursed the little hawk back to hunting health. He has friends in Eastern Washington who run a Raptor Rehab clinic for injured hawks and owls. Toby gets some of his hawks from the rehab center. He trains and hunts them for a few years, then returns the birds to the wild.

Falconry has always interested me. I’ve read about and studied it some over the years. In medieval times hawking was the sport of kings, aristocrats, and men of means and leisure. Toby is proof the sport is still practiced today, but because raptors are protected, I’m sure the pastime is strictly regulated.

Shakespeare, in Elizabethan times, referenced the sport in several of his plays. One such allusion immediately comes to mind: Lady Capulet says of her daughter who is grieving Romeo’s banishment: “Tonight she is mewed up to her heaviness (R & J, III, iv, l.11. “Mews” is an enclosure or coop where hawks were kept). I either read about or heard it said somewhere that the character Petruchio used the same technique as falconers employed to train their hawks to “tame” the shrewish Katherine in the Bard’s play Taming of the Shrew. 

Falconry was among my dad’s many interests. Although Dad tried to capture hawks, the closest he came to becoming a falconer was to craft a couple small deerskin hoods to shroud a hawk’s head should he ever capture one. I even built a hawk trap, baited it with a live pigeon, fashioned a sagebrush blind out in a wheat field and waited for some Red-tailed or Northern harrier to swoop down and entangle itself in my snare. I knew raptors were keen of sight and thought I was well-hidden underneath that pile of brush, but I’m sure I was found out. Even though the near-white pigeon was a sitting duck, all I got for my troubles was a few scratches from the sagebrush and a bout of sneezing when my allergies protested the sage.

But I did catch a hawk here on the place a few years back, a Cooper’s hawk, and by accident, of course. Mr. Cooper chased a spring robin into the netting tent I had erected to protect my blueberry crop, so there’s a bit of irony in this story. I had removed one section of tent to access the berries, and it was through this opening the hawk pursued the robin. I discovered Mr. Cooper crouched down in a nest of redbreast feathers. He’d finished his feast but couldn’t locate the exit and for the moment was trapped. I ran to the house for the camera, returned and snapped the attached photo of one very unhappy hawk. When I tried for a close-up shot, Mr. C  would have none of it, turned tail to put some distance between us and found the exit he’d been looking for. He fled to a nearby tree where he caught his breath and then having had his feast --but not without adventure-- hastily fled.Mr. Cooper, robin slayerToby and I exchange hawk tales. The Valley, I tell him, is a haven for raptors. Nothing new to Toby as he makes frequent forays here on hawk business. His owning an American kestrel prompts me to tell him of the little hawks I see perched on the power lines out in the Valley. He knows about them, most likely has seen the same ones as I. Just the day before, I tell him I noted one on the wires between the Broers’ places (they frequently patrol the berry fields along that stretch). This little raptor appeared to have an unusually long tail, as if it somehow had acquired tail feather extensions. As I rode by, I noticed the extra feathers had the tail markings of a junco. The kestrel had just caught his lunch and was about to serve it up.

Toby shares more of his experiences with hawks. He uses special traps to catch them, baits the traps with mice.The falcons swoop down on their prey and become enmeshed in a special net that covers the bait enclosure. Toby tells me one time he was called out to trap a Cooper’s hawk feasting on a flock of hatchery California quail that had escaped their pens, taken up residence in the neighborhood, had propagated and thrived there. Mr.Cooper had devised an ingenious way of catching a meal. He would make his presence known to the covey which would immediately seek cover in the bushes. The hawk would then alight, walk into the bushes, and flush the quail, who would take flight in panic and fly into the windowpanes of the adjacent house. Mr. Cooper would saunter over, scoop up the nearest stunned victim in his talons and make off with it. “That’s one smart hawk,” I say. Toby laughs and nods in agreement.

I relate the story of the gyrfalcon, escapee from the Woodland Park Zoo, and how the keepers used a tracking device to locate the fugitive. Toby responds with his own story about a peregrine falcon he once owned. Peregrine falcons are the world’s fastest bird. They hunt on high and dive on their prey, knocking it out of the air, sending it plummeting to earth. A peregrine falcon in its “stoop,” a falconer’s term for a hawk’s dive, achieves speeds of nearly 200 mph. Being struck by any object traveling that speed would raise quite a bump on anything, don’t you think? Toby was hunting the peregrine one day when the hawk, flying high overhead, disappeared from sight. He was able to locate the bird days later using a monitoring device much like the one used to recover the zoo’s gyrfalcon from the Valley. The hawk had killed a duck on a farm miles away and had stayed over for two days while it finished the leftovers.

I can see Toby is anxious to finish constructing his project, a homemade one that consisted of collapsible panels of wood and chicken wire for easy assembly and knock down, a portable trap easily transported to starling country. He agrees to a brief work stoppage to pose for a Ripple photograph along with his oldest daughter Cadence, but only after an apology for the statement on his sweat shirt. I tell him journalists by trade are impartial gatherers of news, and if he’s bold enough to flaunt his allegiances on enemy turf, he’d have no grief from me.   Toby Cantwell, falconerToby was an interesting fellow and I enjoyed our hawk talk. Toby, may your traps never be empty and your hawks never grow hungry. And the next time I see a cloud of starlings circling the dairy barns, I hope to see them flying the “missing man (men…) formation!”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Valley Ripple at 101 (posts)…

(Note: because of Groundhog’s Day, this post, meant to celebrate The Ripple’s one hundredth, was preempted.)

Fog blanket

She looks so comfortable with him. Safe and secure against his shoulder, forehead pressing his cheek like it was her second home. He is wearing a maroon T-shirt with the name of a well-known clothing company printed on the front, a brand popular with young adults his age. The young man is barrel-chested: the shirt fits tightly, the cloth across his chest strained by his thick torso, the sleeve stretches across the biceps. He has a linebacker’s build. A football jersey with numbers rather than a shirt touting a clothing company’s name would seem the more appropriate apparel. Perspiration darkens his left underarm. A leather baseball cap is mounted stylishly backwards on his head, the visor barely visible behind his left ear. Dark hair thins to sideburns which thin further to a shadow of black beard that yokes his cheek and chin. This new growth seems a bit unsure of itself as if it were surprised by its own appearance. Around his sturdy neck are two necklaces. They are a man’s adornment; nothing a teammate would scoff at. One is a puka shell necklace, the kind tourists collect in Hawaii. A smaller necklace of knotted hemp twine, perhaps homemade, overlays the strand of shells.

He smiles out at the camera from the photograph, a broad smile, slightly lopsided because the girl’s forehead presses his cheek. The grin is infectious, enhanced by strong, straight teeth. The camera flash sparkles in his brown eyes. He is proud to pose with the girl, proud to show her off to the camera, lucky to have her high forehead pressed against his cheek.

His companion is a slender girl, not beautiful, but pretty. She would tell you her nose is just a bit too large, her chin a bit too broad. A smile pushes it broader. It protrudes slightly now as she poses for the photo. But by no means is she hard to look at: her smile vivacious, her face, the dark hair which trails down her right shoulder to feather out on her chest,  glow with health. Where it shows beneath the hair, her neck is long and graceful, delicately feminine next to her partner’s. If one looks closely, just above her neckline a thin strand of silver chain peeks from beneath the fall of her hair. The high forehead presents just that much more face to admire; the winsome smile and its white, even teeth. The smile sends the fleshy lobes of her cheeks riding her cheekbones, dimpling the corners of her mouth. Like him, she has brown eyes that reflect the camera’s flash. That smile and those eyes soften the nose.

The girl poses in an elbow-length cotton blouse. Her right arm is in the foreground, crooked at the elbow and except for two items on her wrist, bare. On her forearm, closest her elbow because it is for dress, is a plain bracelet. At first glance the bracelet looks to be made of hemp twine like her partner’s necklace, but closer examination shows a string of small, flat beads, shell fragments, maybe, or small, dark stones. (The sort of souvenir a tourist might find in Hawaii?) A second band circles the dainty wrist. This wristlet is not ornament—a practical appliance, rather: an elastic hair band, the kind a long-haired girl snaps on her wrist for handy removal to twist her hair into a quick ponytail when she tires of brushing the strands from her face. But now the band awaits its next assignment, ceding purpose to art. The long fingers of her right hand curl around an aluminum beverage can, her thumb hidden in the grasp. Just what beverage she enjoys must be left to the imagination: her fingers hide the lettering on the side. (Just barely visible in the photo’s lower right is the top of a similar can, perhaps set there by her partner while he posed for the picture.) Most visible, the nails of fore and little finger are trimmed a tasteful length and show more of careful hygiene than vanity. Other than the gloss of clear nail polish on her nails, her hand, its fingers, are bare.

He looks like a “Jason,” she a “Jennifer.” The intimacy of their pose, Jennifer tucked into the web of Jason’s shoulder…it’s not the embrace of brother and sister. A kind of magnetism beyond their smiles radiates from the photo. They are a pleasing couple to look at; young people in love always gladden the spirit.

The studio appears to be a kitchen. As the couple poses in the foreground, a microwave oven, an adjacent decanter of some sort—for cooking oil possibly—dark cabinets, an architectural frill to separate wall from ceiling—all shadows in the background. A dark, paneled door breaks the plane of the wall behind them. The door is closed.

Once a girl named Alice discovered a narrow passageway behind a looking glass. She entered and behind the mirror discovered a world full of odd things and strange people. What if instead of a passageway, Alice found a photograph discarded along a roadside, a photo in which two young strangers posed, their images frozen in time: July 6, 2006. And say she squeezed between the image and the Fuji print paper to share the strangers’ moment? What might the precocious and inquiring mind of young Alice make of such a world, a world in which a young couple embrace? And what might her story be?

Five years pass. Shadows deepen. A door opens. Darkness sweeps the room bare. Life intrudes, directs, always has the upper hand, sometimes plays the tyrant. A photograph captures but a mote of time. Life and its whims dictate what comes after. Jennifer and Jason—what has life done for them, to them, since they embraced for the camera? When you’re young and in love, you look life in the face and grin it down. But who has the last laugh? And if it’s yours, is it a laugh of pure joy? Or one tinged with sarcasm?  Bitterness, maybe?

A shutter snap and a half decade later. Where is the young couple now? Does that protective arm still welcome her? Does her forehead still press his cheek? The smell of her hair, the warmth of her body make his heart tingle as it used to, beat a bit faster? Flutter when he sees her? College…so much can happen…so many new experiences, relationships to assault or sunder what was captured by the lens in one split second. Those slender fingers…is there a ring? Half a decade…for better or for worse? A child with a tiny, but distinct nose? If you could break down those five years into photographic moments, would the same couple still share the stage? Or would different faces smile out at the camera? The forehead against a different cheek? The arm encircle a different girl? So much life in half a decade. So much for Alice to tell….

If you could locate Jennifer, call her forth this moment, show her the photograph, would she smile now? And Jason…would he still feel proud of that girl he clasped the moment the camera’s lens caught him smiling there so happy in her company?

If you were shown an image of yourself taken five years back, what would your story be? Happiness and prosperity in the interim? Or has life strong armed your hopes, steered them off course, dashed them against the shoals of broken dreams? What stony paths have you trod since you posed those long five years ago, happy, smiling into the camera, so glad to be alive?

From a discarded photograph found during a walk…just a little fiction from the Valley.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Groundhog Day in the Valley…

Scary Shadow

Gather up your guns

And call out your dogs!

Gather up your guns

and call out your dogs!

Into the woods—we’ll

catch a groundhog! GROUNDHOG!

It’s a frisky shadow that walks with me this sunny morning in the Valley. Sometimes I’m “shadowed;” sometimes I’m led; shadow to the left of me; sometimes shadow to the right. No wonder that immortal boy of J.M. Barrie fame had Wendy sew his shadow to his feet to keep it from bounding off at will.

Only forty-six days until spring—unless that rodent of meteorological portent, Punxsutawney Phil, is spooked by his shadow. But apparently he wasn’t. No big surprise there considering his neck of the woods is experiencing the Perfect Snowstorm of the past several decades. Looks like we can lop off another six weeks from this strange La Nina winter.

Come here, Sal,

With a big, long pole!

Come here, Sal,

With a big, long pole!

Twist that whistlepig

Out of his hole! GROUNDHOG!

Whistlepig—what an apt nickname for that rotund little varmint whose habit is sounding a “heads up” with a shrill whistle when alarmed. Another common name for the perky pest is “yellow-bellied marmot,”a lowland rodent akin to the hoary marmot one encounters while hiking in the mountains.

When I was growing up in Eastern Washington, a favorite spring pastime was to comb the rockslides and outcrops on hillsides, .22 rifle in hand, hunting groundhogs. Local farmers, especially alfalfa growers, consider groundhogs pests because of their love of alfalfa and the quantities of potential hay they can pack away. I guess we considered we were doing our bit to protect the local crops by plinking a groundhog or two whenever we got the chance. Besides, it was spring and after being housebound all winter with nothing to do but terrorize our brothers and sisters, the hills called us out. High adventure, if you’re a kid, and a good way to hone your sharpshooting skills for the hunting season to come.

On one spring foray to the hills, I bagged a nice whistlepig, fat and sleek, and decided to pack it home and stew it up for the family. Put a little marmot meat on the table for the folks. I used an old pioneer recipe, one I’m happy to share with you. In honor of the day I post it here .

           Groundhog Stew

6  large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

6-8 large carrots, peeled and chopped into 1 1/2 inch rounds

3 large onions, peeled, halved and quartered

4 large rutabagas, (turnips will do) peeled and chunked

1 head of celery, including the leaves

1 knot of garlic. Separate and peel cloves.Use whole. Do not chop, dice, or press

1 quart canned tomatoes

liberal quantities of salt and pepper

1 large groundhog, skinned and gutted. Remove head and paws. Set aside tail for garnish or table decoration.


Place vegetables and condiments in a large Dutch oven. Add three quarts water. Quarter the groundhog and mix in among vegetables, including the back portion. Bring to a boil. Boil for five minutes, then reduce heat. Simmer for 12 hours or until meat and bone separate.

Serving: remove every last bit of groundhog meat and bones. Set aside for the huntin’ dogs. Dish up vegetables and broth piping hot.

Serves a large family of eight to ten—if you can find anyone willing to pit his palate or stomach against such hearty fare! Good luck!

Here comes Bill

With a snicker and a grin!

Here comes Bill with a snicker and a grin!

Groundhog gravy all over his chin!


Happy Groundhog’s Day to the Valley!

Cool marmot