Search This Blog

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Trifling with Truffles or There’s Fungus Among Us in the Valley…

Lord of the Valley Two or three months ago I noticed a flutter of pink along the lower Loop Road and sent the Ripple to investigate this new Valley pretty. In a stretch of field behind Kelly Bolles’ Organic Farms the ground was plowed and staked. (Kelly’s house? You can’t miss this edifice—the old Baylor place: it’s the elevated house that’s in the stage of becoming…and becoming…and becoming… but that’s a whole other post.) The House that Would be Built Every five or six feet there was a stake flagged with hot pink surveyor’s tape, row after row of them. Some sort of woody twig sprouted alongside each. Whatever the new planting was, I’m familiar enough with the Valley berry industry to know the leafless stalks were not berry plants. “Now what’s all this about?” I wondered and made a mental note to interrogate Kelly when next our paths crossed.  Stakes in the future

But before Kelly, I encountered Paul Bischoff. He was transplanting garlic on the lower Loop Road the other day. I was sure he would know the story behind the fluttering pink flags. “Looks like more posting material for the Ripple,” I say. When Paul heard I was there on behalf of the press, he hemmed and hawed, turned rather evasive, as if a team from “60 Minutes” had suddenly shown up with their camera crew and were about to shove a microphone into his face. All Paul would disclose was the staked field was Kelly’s leap of faith into exotic agriculture and that the newly set twigs were hazelnut trees. Paul would rather I talk to Kelly about the particulars. So that evening I dial up Bolles’ Organic Farm and after listening to a pitch for “raw honey and assorted jams,” I was told to leave a message. “This is the Ripple calling,” I tell the voice. “What’s up with your flagged field? Might make an interesting post. Give me a call,” and left it at that.

Nearly a month passed. No call from Kelly. The Ripple is nothing if not persistent. A secret in the Valley? I’ll have it out or bust. And the other day as Gladys and I glide by the lofty old renovation, there’s Kelly Bolles himself puttering about. We cruise into his driveway and rattle to a stop. “So you don’t want to talk about your latest agricultural venture, what you have at stake?” I ask, trying to sound more diplomatic than accusatory. I mention the unanswered phone message. Kelly informs me I most likely had dialed a number and left a message on a machine he doesn’t check for sometimes two weeks at a time when it’s not marketing season. He had not heard my message.

Kelly at first appeared reluctant to talk about his innovative enterprise—a fear about crop plundering, I gather—but I reassure him, “Hey, it’s not like you’re planting the field in watermelons, now is it?”He shakes his head and laughs. Once he starts talking, Kelly rides the wave of his enthusiasm and the information pours forth. Some time ago he learned the Pacific Northwest has its own truffle industry. Truffles? Yes, truffles, exotic fungi, the mushroom equivalent of caviar. Fancy French fare. “Truffles?” Kelly’s dad remarked when he heard of his son’s latest brainchild. “I thought those things grew only in France!”Kelly B., future truffle kingYes, the gold standard of mycology has come to the Valley. Kelly did some research on truffle production in Oregon, our southern neighbor that apparently is in the vanguard of the industry on the west coast. “Truffle growers even have their own annual conventions,” Kelly exclaims. I asked him if he had attended any or had plans to. “No,” he says. “I think they’d be pretty pricey to attend.” His research has included videos on truffle production and harvesting, and he has been in contact with one of the Oregon growers, from whom he’s gleaned not only advice, but also the capital outlay for a truffle crop right here along the Lower Loop Road.

So this is what I learn. Truffles are a fungus symbiotic with oak and hazelnut trees. (I knew our northwest morels had an affinity for cottonwoods.) Kelly purchased 400 seedling trees from his Oregon contact at $12.50 per tree. Although most are hazelnut trees—preferable because the hazelnut grows faster than oak—there were not enough for a 400 count, so the balance was filled by the slower growing oak trees. Because truffles thrive in alkaline soil, Kelly had to add thirty tons of lime to the two acres to adjust the soil’s PH.  (Because of our considerable rainfall, Valley soil tends to be acidic; good for berries, bad for truffles.) hazenut hope And the yearling trees? They have all been truffled with, inoculated with Black Perigord truffle mycelium.

Twelve thousand dollars later Kelly has himself a potential nut and truffle farm, although he’s not quite sure how he’s going to market all the nutty by-product. He has high hopes for the results. In gourmet food circles truffles can command a price of $2,200 a pound. Truffle oil yields an even greater premium. Truffles grow in the soil surrounding the tree’s root system and a soil temperature of at least 85 degrees is necessary for the spores to fruit. Kelly hopes our unpredictable summers will produce enough heat to set his truffle crop. From berries to truffles—quite a leap of faith, it seems to me.

Anyone who knows a thing about French truffle production is familiar with the time honored method of harvest: truffle gatherers tag along through the countryside in the company of pigs. When Porky starts rooting around the base of an oak tree, harvesters quickly intervene to keep their porcine pals from pigging out on the valuable black nuggets. I ask Kelly which harvesting technique he plans to use and am surprised he hasn’t really thought this through yet. I tell him Jason Dean down on Ben Howard has a half dozen pigs. Maybe Kelly the truffle farmer could team with JD the pig farmer, a little symbiosis of their own. Kelly laughs and shares that in a video he watched, the truffle hunter used a dog, a small one, Jack Russell terrier size, to locate the underground prizes. Hogs have an innate sense of smell that allows them to home in on the mushroom morsels. Dogs have to be be trained to seek them out. I share a story about a dog’s keen sense of smell with Kelly, tell him about the time a drug sniffing dog was paraded down the halls of Snohomish High School. Suddenly the dog became frantic in front of a certain locker door. The principal was summoned, a key obtained, and the locker opened where a potted hyacinth in full bloom was discovered. A horticulture student had cultivated it and brought the plant to her locker before carrying it home with her that day after school.

And it’s the training that makes the canine hunter more suitable for the task; you might train a pig to dance, but where a lusty meal is concerned…well, a pig is inclined to be a pig after all.  Nuts to the ValleyIt takes some creative thought to make a small farm profitable in these modern times. Innovation and diversity are keys to success. I admire Kelly’s courage to try something new in the Valley. I hope his two acre experiment yields him a mycelium miracle and that the whole venture doesn’t end up being just plain nutty.

As far as anyone moonlighting for mushrooms—Kelly has nothing to fear from me. A $2,200 mushroom would be utterly wasted on my stultified epicurean taste buds. My hedonistic tendencies might extend to the rare portobello or a shitake, but a tin of button mushrooms suits this gourmand just fine. Besides I don’t think the cat would be much help rooting out truffle beds. On the other hand, a two acre field of watermelons? A cold slice of melon, juicy and dripping red on a hot summer’s day? Yeah, a watermelon patch…that could pose some real problems for Farmer Bolles.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Memories and Memorials: It’s Lilac Time Again in the Valley…

Dr. Gimbrere's lilacsThe house smells of lilacs this morning. Yesterday my daughter and husband came for a visit and stayed for a drizzly BBQ. Son-in-law Avi is a computer engineer and worked his magic on a publishing project I have undertaken. When I went to greet them at the door, I was gifted with a luxurious bouquet of lilacs: soft lavender blossoms surrounded by a heady nimbus of delicate fragrance.From our yard to you By coincidence I had just gathered a bouquet of purple and white lilacs from our own yard to dress up the house a bit for their visit.

Just over a year ago I posted about lilacs (“The Valley in Lilac Time…”), how they evoked for me a special fondness for redheaded girls and my youth. It is a backward spring again this year, and the lilacs are just starting to bloom. Memorial Day is fast approaching, and I will be able to gather a bouquet from the place to take to Packwood Memorial Cemetery in Eastern Washington, the old pioneer cemetery where my dad now lies. I’ll add to my own lilacs additional white blossoms from an ancient bush at the old homestead not far from Dad’s grave: a gift from here and there to dress the spot where he rests among the spring wildflowers.White fragranceBut these lilacs I take from my daughter and arrange carefully in a vase take me beyond beauty and fragrance to a bittersweet memory not long past, for these lilacs are a memorial bouquet from the yard of Dr. Kathreen Gimbrere. For many years  Dr. Gimbrere was my daughter’s caregiver and friend, and even though I met Kathreen only once—she was a guest at Marika’s wedding—I felt as if she were a member of our family, a close friend if only through our daughter’s sharing of their experiences together. At our first and only meeting I found Dr. Gimbrere to be a remarkable woman, one who loved to laugh, who savored life, the world, her patients, her calling…. We talked so comfortably, Kathreen and I, about our families, our interests…my daughter. I found her to be a vivacious, energetic lady, so engaged in life and living.

Dr. Kathreen Gimbrere left this earth last September, less than six months after being diagnosed with a virulent, aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. But as I pass that vase laden with soft beauty, pass through its lilac fragrance, it’s not lilac things that come to mind. I think of the blessing Kathreen’s care and love was to our family, our daughter, to so many lives, and to this world. Hers is indeed a legacy of love.

But the lilacs bloom eternal and Kathreen’s spirit blooms with them now, and in them, and their fragrance enfolds us in her memory.

Kathreen Gimbrere 

February 4, 1959--September 30, 2010

in loving memory

In Memoriam

 “…come back and bring a sprig of lilac.”
Raintree County,

Ross Lockridge, Jr.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bragging Rights in the Valley…

He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.”

Ecclesiastes 11:4

Change is in the wind

I came across a paraphrase of the Ecclesiastes quote in Elizabeth Allston Pringle’s book A Woman Rice Planter, a remarkable woman’s account of the rice growing industry in the Carolina Low Country before, during and after the Civil War. Ms. Pringle who inherited Chicora Wood, one of her father’s six ante-bellum plantations, plunged herself after his death into the patriarchal role of the Southern male rice planter. A woman of indomitable spirit and native commonsense, Elizabeth not only ran the plantation at a profit and was able to pay off debt against the property, but also found time during the trials of the day (and they were legion) to journal a wonderfully written account of post Civil War South Carolina rice production. Pringle’s interest in agricultural pursuits on her plantation—and relying on the foundations of the rice industry established by her talented father—led her to diversify her crops; Elizabeth was at the forefront of alfalfa production in the late 1800’s. Not one to sit idly by waiting for favorable weather and planting conditions, Elizabeth flaunted Mother Nature and saw to it the planting took place on time. After all, she had a payroll and mortgage to meet.

As Gladys and I roll down the Valley this morning, I think about the Biblical quote Pringle shared. The clouds are thickening, skitter at will across the sun. They are the kind of clouds that will herd together soon and are sure to gang up on the Valley later. I ride by the Werkhoven cornfields. Looks like they have done an initial turning of the stubble but that is it. It is almost mid-May and brackish water yet lies between the furrows, puddles in the dual wheel marks left by the farm equipment. I imagine Andy, Jim, Steve and crew are beside themselves with this weather. I imagine rain on the roof keeps them awake and anxious at night. I imagine the ponds in the cornfields have them wringing their hands as if they could wring the moisture from the soil and begin sowing their corn.

So perhaps it is a bit mean-spirited of me to gloat about my first time ever farmin’ accomplishment: getting a jump on the Werkhovens’ and their annual corn crop. I ignored the winds of late; I ignored the inundation from the clouds the past several weeks and took advantage of two days of dry weather. Yesterday I tilled; I furrowed; I planted; and I replanted a half row after I returned from a half hour lunch break only to find a pesky jay had stripped half the uncovered seed from a furrow.Corn 2011The heavenly downspouts have loosed again this morning. But my corn is in (not hundreds of acres, of course), all three rows of it. I know a lot can happen between now and fall’s corn fritters, but the seed is in the ground.This year at last the bragging rights are mine.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Naming of Parts….

Ranier in May Remember that feather I found the other day? Well, a feather’s a feather, right? But it’s not quite that simple. You could have knocked me over with one when I discovered a feather has an anatomy of its own. I learned each bird’s feather is like a little machine, comprised of separate parts all working together in a bird’s avionics, making each fowl of the air a feathered Dreamliner.

In general terms Webster’s 9th Collegiate defines a feather as “one of the light, horny epidermal outgrowths that form the external covering of the body of birds….” The central stem of a feather has two names: first, the quill, the thick tip of a feather that attaches to the flesh of the bird. A sharpened quill was the predecessor of metal pen nibs, thus the quill pen (interestingly the Latin word for “feather” is penna ; and nom de plume: “pen name from the French).The second is the rachis, the part of the central stem that supports the vane or web. “Webis an apt term for the feather part of the feather because that’s just what it is, a woven structure consisting of thousands of barbs, smaller structures attached to the rachis and “feathering” it.One for the cap Each barb is “webbed” to its fellow by barbules which in turn end in barbicels tipped by hook-like hamuli. So the entire horny contraption is woofed and warped together, a natural Velcroing, of sorts. And that’s why when you gently run your thumb and forefinger up and down the vane, it doesn’t separate. (Feel free to take notes from the above for your Ornithology 101 class.)

But is all this information necessary? Isn’t it enough to know “the horny epidermal outgrowth”on a bird is called a “feather?” What is it about the nature of some folks that they feel the need to name a thing to death? And who thinks up all these terms anyway? I wonder if you’d invite to a party the fellow who assigned the names “rachis” and “barbule” to the parts of a feather? Want him as a neighbor? A colleague, even? Assigning a name to something gives us power in some way over that thing, a means to a greater understanding of it. Naming a thing validates it—the name’s a symbol of its existence. That’s why we are so sensitive about our own names: their spellings, their pronunciations, how other folks use them.

This serious naming of things, of parts, began with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century. (I’ve seen a portrait of the botanist and old Carl hardly looks like he’d be the life of the party. In spite of the twinkle in his eye, he looks as stiff as his wig.) Dissatisfied with laymen’s common terms for the animate stuff of Nature, Linnaeus devised binomial nomenclature, the system for naming flora and fauna and assigned plants and animals with a “generic” name and a second “specific” name: genus and species. Thus our modern system of classification. And wanting this method to be a universal system, Carl chose Latin for the naming of things. No longer can one go around willy nilly slapping names on things and have these monikers accepted by the scientific community. International commissions on zoological and botanical nomenclature strictly regulate the names of new plant and animal species. And then there are those name fanciers who believe anything important enough to name should be named in trinomials: genus, species, and subspecies. And who said Latin is a dead language?

The other day I stopped to talk to Denise and Matt Beebe who were tidying up the corner at Tualco and 203. Matt had just finished his lunch--a personal hotdog eating contest--downing four “dawgs” (loaded with the works, too, I imagine), giving a big boost to the daily receipts of the little hotdog cart that has sprouted alongside the latte stand.More dogs in the Valley I asked the Beebes what they had growing in the greenhouse behind the stand. Matt told me to go take a look.

It was a rare sunny day. The greenhouse was pleasantly warm and smelled of contented plants and vigorous root systems. We chatted a while about some of the unfamiliar varieties sunning themselves on the ground. Then Deb Kyle stopped by to check on the status of things. It was about a year ago I met Deb. That day I gave her a four-leaf clover for good luck. We also talked about books, and I discovered our literary tastes overlapped. Almost as rare as a sunny day is it to find someone who shares your taste in books. And here she is again one year later.

As I exit the greenhouse, I notice a patch of familiar vegetation growing by the entrance.common selfheal Familiar, yes, because the plant has pretty much invaded our place this spring, cropping up around the blueberries and raspberries, festooning the fence lines, and choking out the garden plot. I turn to Matt, point to the flowering clump and the very first words out of my mouth? “What’s the NAME of that stuff, anyway!” “Common self-heal,” Matt replies. And Deb comes at me with a mouthful of binomial Latin: “That’s Prunella vulgaris,” she boasts. As usual those Beebes are a wealth of information. “I have some drying at home,” says Matt. “It makes a nice tea. Belongs to the mint family. See? It has a square stem.” I know the bees are fond of the blossoms, and this is the only reason I have tolerated the weed on the property. But I have overstayed my welcome, and Matt looks anxious to work off all those dogs, so away I go.P. vulgarisAs I leave, Denise is doing battle with the dandelions in the gravel behind the greenhouse, and I think, “Ah, the dandelions.” They are in full bloom now, and the fickle bees have turned their backs on Prunella vulgaris, forsaken its lavender blossoms for the sunny pollen-smeared faces of this more cheerful weed. So come teatime the Beebes can have their vulgar plant. But for you and all your invasive vulgarity, P. vulgaris, I have another name for you: Round-Up!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Picking Up After Mother Nature…

row on row of gold

In the Valley the other day I found a feather. Not much of a find, you say, especially after that big wad of cash I found on 4/1, but nonetheless I picked it up and carried it home. I had to, you see--force of habit from those long ago days of boyhood. Back then I was always picking up after Mother Nature, stuff she left lying around cluttering up the countryside perhaps because Ma Nature abhors a vacuum. In those days trash from fast food joints was years away; no unsightly white paper sacks with red and golden arches on them; no cardboard buckets bearing the image of a goateed gentleman with a black string tie throttling his adam’s apple. And certainly no plastic clamshells, bottles or milk jugs. What I drug home were real treasures, curiosities born of the natural world. I had a special place for this detritus, my own Ye Olde Curiosity shelf, a jumble of artifacts any country boy would envy.

Through the dust of years I can see that shelf now, and I am sorting through its riches: an oriole’s sock nest, a stem gall from a stalk of goldenrod, the ossified talons of a dead owl, the cotton tuff tail from a cottontail rabbit, a chunk of blood-rusty jasper, a June bug with crisp-dried legs that would cling like Velcro to your flannel shirt. I had back quills from a putrefied porcupine, saved aside for exotic Christmas ornaments (stick a couple dozen in a styrofoam ball and you’d have a decoration that might have come from the Dark Continent). That shard of gentle blue? A half shell of a robin’s egg. A piece of driftwood in the shape of some animal. A snail? A bluegill? Brass shell casings of various calibers ejected and cast aside from hunters’guns. The skull of some small mammal, its dental structure perhaps a skunk’s? A clay bowl made Indian style, fashioned from the local clay banks and fired in the coals of a campfire. In a small, plastic box with a snap lid were flakes of flint and broken arrowheads, a stone bead, a small scraper, and nestled comfortably among the chippings was the chitinous tail of a rattlesnake, eight rattles and a button.

And there were feathers, too: a tail feather from a pheasant rooster, a wing feather from some large raptor, an eagle maybe, sturdy as a branch, a long, slender and black feather from the tail of a magpie, tiny pinfeathers, each a splash of blood, and yellow-tipped tail feathers from a cedar waxwing. And three or four topknots that once bobbed about on the heads of California quail, each bound together with sewing thread.

The Good Book states (I Corinthians 13:11) “…a man [should] put aside childish things…,” but don’t you suppose that means toys only: trikes, skates, model planes and cars, yo-yo’s and hula hoops… pistols, cap and water… and pea shooters?Birdshell Certainly curios from the natural world are exempt, else I wouldn’t have brought home this near perfect feather, gray and soft, a black band across its tip, a marvel of master craftsmanship: a tail feather from a pigeon or more to the fact, an Eurasian Collared dove.Tickle your fancy “Friends of feather, flock together” so I tucked it into a vase with other assorted feathers from jays, crows, flickers, pheasants, and plumage from yet to be identified avians.

And that shelf of oddities collected by a curious boy? Well, married life would not allow such a public display. But there is a certain desk drawer…and a certain plastic box…and Mother Nature still discards her trash…. Let’s sift through some of it now. What can you identify?nature's trash