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Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Valediction: Then and Now…

School Days, School days

June 16th. It is early evening. A confident young man, impeccably attired in a turn-of-the-century suit, strides to the lectern. He looks out at his audience, smiles to set them at ease, and begins to speak:

“We stand tonight as one who stands upon a high mountain top and sees a vast panorama revealed to him by the dawn of day. Our advantages have placed us in a like position. Before us is a great future replete with possibilities and dangers. Before these responsibilities and dangers many a man better equipped than we has cowered. Many a college graduate when thrown upon his own resources has lost heart and like Hamlet, the Dane, has gradually sunk beneath the burdens which seemed impossible for him to bear.”Old Time Ed.

With those admonitory words Frank Murray, valedictorian of the Class of 1911, the first graduating class from Monroe High School, bid adieu to his four fellow classmates and sent them off to a “future replete with possibilities and dangers.”

The Tualco Grange. 6:30 p.m. June 16th, 2011. Poised and confident, a tall, good-looking young man dressed in dark slacks and long-sleeved red shirt—turn of the century casual—reads the following:

“…Regret, deep and lasting, fills our hearts that our relations are to be forever severed; that shall not take leave of the influences and good counsel which has been such an incentive in our work; and that we must say farewell for the last time to the happiest days of our lives.”

At the request of the Monroe Historical Society Tom Meeus, valedictorian of Monroe High School, Class of 2011 (one of Monroe High’s seven valedictorians this year), for the second time in one hundred years concludes Frank Murray’s valedictory speech. Tom Meeus, Valedictorian What better way, I think, to commemorate one hundred years of education in Monroe than to have a current valedictorian read words composed by Monroe High’s very first top scholar of one hundred years ago.

I had read the text of the speech before Tom presented it to the Grange audience and was curious, for one, about the tone of Murray’s speech. My thirty-one years in the education business have put me in the audience of many valedictory speeches. What I remember of those—before I dozed—was uplifting in tone and spirit. Go forth and conquer! Excelsior! The world is your oyster! Snap it up and savor it! Murray’s speech, on the other hand, was cautionary, a look-over-your shoulder sort of message (“…Life itself accomplishes evolution of man by subjecting him to hardships.”); Frank’s message was that moving on from one’s high school experience was a tentative time when apron strings should be severed and the graduate tiptoe forth with trepidation, like one about to advance across a minefield.

I discussed this with Tom before the presentation. I asked him if most of the graduating seniors, Class of 2011, would understand the allusion to “Hamlet, the Dane,” (the suicidal young man of “to be or not to be” fame). Tom thought the Advanced Placement classes would understand but the mainstream seniors probably would not. Tom himself admitted he’d never read Shakespeare’s play about the gloomy young Dane. And there was the vocabulary, too. I doubt today’s teenagers would include: “replete, cower, naught,” or “degrade” in their text messages.

American history is not my strong suit. I tried to view Murray’s speech in its historical context: WWI was half a decade away; the Great Depression a quarter of a century beyond. Just what sort of world the valedictorian was about to step into, I’m not sure. Maybe Murray was a young cynic or just trying to appear a young man wise beyond his years. Frank was a member of the school’s Literary Society. Maybe he was just showing off…. The tone of the speech seemed more collegiate to me—and perhaps in keeping with the economic climate college grads face in today’s sagging job market.

After the centennial reprise of Frank Murray, Tom introduced Max Echterling, Tom’s fellow valedictorian and ASB president. Max gave a speech more in character with the modern valedictory sendoff. Max the ASB Prez In a speech tinged with humor (Echterling quoted Kurt Vonnegut, a name, I’m sure, also foreign to most mainstream high school graduates: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover your high school class is running the country” ), Max  pledged his confidence in the Class of 2011 and felt the country would be in very capable hands when his 2011 classmates handled its reins.

The evening continued with high school testimonials of former grads. The eldest graduate in attendance was Mabel Neisinger (nee Boyce, the sister of Merv Boyce ), the valedictorian of the Class of 1936. Ninety-five year old Mabel was accompanied by her daughter Suzanne Imbeau who served as spokeswoman because of her mother’s laryngitis. We learn Mabel had to memorize her valedictory address, all twenty minutes of it: six weeks to write it; six weeks to commit it to memory. The class salutatorian and student body president followed Mabel with twenty minute speeches of their own. She wore a blue dress, Mabel recalls, a dress she made herself especially for that august occasion.

Mabel’s successor, Frances Albert, valedictorian of the Class of 1937, was also in attendance.This sprightly little lady (the sister of Ted Biderbost and Kurt’s Aunt Frances) had returned to the site of her earliest schooling (Tualco Grange was formerly a schoolhouse) to share those days and the special evening with the audience. 1937 ValedictorianThe Grange was a “two” room schoolhouse then, said Frances. A temporary wall was erected to separate some of the grades from the others. The school’s only teacher moved from one room to another to teach her two dozen some pupils. Obviously proud of the schooling she received at the little school, Frances not only earned valedictorian status in 1937 but continued on to higher education at the University of Washington. This vivacious Monroe High alumna is quite the cosmopolite: has visited all fifty of these United States (Alaska three times) and made three trips to Europe. And this fall, we’re told, she has a cruise on her social agenda. Her point? Humble beginnings—if they are solid—need not limit one’s horizons.

Others stood and shared their experiences. Among them was another valedictorian and a runner-up salutatorian. Walt (“Wally”) Armstrong stood and told of his struggle getting through high school. “It took me seven years,” he laughed. “I started in 1947 and finished in 1954.” A job driving logging truck and a hitch in the service stretched his four years to seven. “When I came back, I was too old to play sports,” Wally recalled: “twenty-two and six months was the cutoff for high school athletics.”A Dillar, a Dollar, ten o'clock scholarOne testimonial was punctuated by the pealing of a bell: the old school bell still had that same hearty tintinnabulation from those school days of long ago. It was Butch Olsen who rang the bell and later apologized for the interruption before he launched into the story of the evening, one he warned was more sobering than the others. “How many of you can say you got rid of your principal?” Butch asked and then went on to tell how in 1961 he sold a load of firewood to his high school principal. The exertion of stacking wood caused the principal to suffer a fatal heart attack. I hope Butch was paid before his principal’s demise…he never did say….School daze, IIAfter the ring and tell session, I sought out Tom Meeus. In another life I taught speech classes or speech units to high schoolers. During the “stand and deliver” sessions I would evaluate my my students’ performances and rate them 1-5 in five general areas of speech delivery: poise, volume, pace, advance preparation, and eye contact. Tom immediately noticed the “teacher” in my attitude and tried to get the jump on me: “You can’t fault me on eye contact,” he warns, “They’re not my words; I just read them.” However I did take the liberty of rating Tom’s performance and while I won’t crunch the numbers for a composite score, I will say that Frank Murray’s peaceful sleep was not disturbed by the reading;  I’m sure valedictorian Murray, Class of 1937, President of the Literary Society, would have smiled in approval at Tom’s delivery. I did tell Tom had he worn a tie I would have given him a “6” out of “5” on poise!

It was an event energized by the enthusiasm and confidence of the new alums and the experiences shared by the “seasoned” graduates. To sweeten the evening we all retired to the kitchen counter to choose a bowl of strawberry shortcake mounded with whipped cream. Seated at one of the tables and about to address a heaping bowl of shortcake was Gramma Snow. Gramma was in charge of refreshments at Historical Society functions, the head of the food detail. I put my hand on her shoulder to get her attention and asked, “How long did it take you to slice all those berries, Gramma?” She smiled and informed me that the berries had come already sliced, sugared and ready to serve; the Valley berries were late, still green, small, and hard as marbles.

Gramma SnowI was disappointed when I dug into my shortcake…a small disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless. The flavor seemed lacking, not the full-bodied robust berry sweetness of freshly picked Tualco Valley strawberries. These berries tasted like they came from a thirty-five gallon plastic bucket…which in fact they had.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Hall Without Panes…

Reward Offered











No panes

Not much else to say, is there??

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Talking to Strangers in the Valley…and Elsewhere…

One dandy dahlia

If you want to gather the news, you have to talk to strangers. And the Ripple, you know, is by no means shy.When you think about it, how many friends and acquaintances wouldn’t be friends and acquaintances if you hadn’t first approached a stranger and engaged him or her in conversation. I was talking to a Valley friend the other evening, a friend, I might add, who a year ago was a total stranger. In 2001 Viviane moved to the Valley from Belgium with her husband Alain and son Tom. Gladys and I were struggling along the Upper Loop Road and happened upon Viviane crossing to collect her mail. I stopped, introduced myself, and that’s how our friendship began. Before this chance meeting I only knew her as that friendly lady who always waved when she passed me on the road.

Viviane shared with me a trait she found bothersome with us Americans: “People don’t seem to talk to each other,” she complained. “I like to talk to people standing in lines at check-out counters, but they don’t like to talk to strangers. It’s not that way at all in Europe.” I’m afraid she’s right. We Americans like our space, whether it is territorial—or emotional; it’s a cultural thing, a throw-back to our pioneer days when the wide open spaces of our vast continent were sparsely settled; when the nearest homestead was a day’s horseback ride away. That old Kentuckian Daniel Boone: when he heard the sound of a neighbor’s ax or could see smoke rising from a distant chimney, he felt crowded. “Give me elbow room,” said Daniel Boone. Europeans on the other hand have lived at each others’ elbows for centuries, are comfortable with this crunch of humanity. In Europe just a big stretch and you’re in another country!

Maybe it is because we Americans are always in a hurry, always on a “tight” schedule, always so busy rehearsing our daily commitments—our routines; even while waiting to be checked out with our purchases our minds are on a treadmill, churning away with a myriad of concerns. So if someone turns to talk to you, he’s entered your personal space, the perpetual treadmill abruptly brakes and you register that uncomfortable look that says, “Talk to someone else; I’m busy with my thoughts at the moment.” Or, “Leave me alone, old man. Don’t take advantage of me just because I’m held hostage by my place in line!” And you quickly return to your own business.

I make it a point to talk to strangers in the Valley whenever I can. There are my journalistic responsibilities to be sure, but you learn things from strangers. There was Marv Breece the birder. Toby Cantwell the falconer. Two zookeepers trying to retrieve a wayward falcon. I’ve met a game warden, an animal control officer, and the bridge technicians I mentioned in the last post. I directed a gentleman to the Barrell man’s residence a couple of months ago. He belonged to the American Veterans of Foreign Wars, was a veteran himself and a member of his post’s detail responsible for the proper disposal of worn out American Flags. This dedicated Vet needed a barrell from which to fashion an incinerator for appropriate flag burning. He even offered me a ride, which in deference to exercise I declined.

The diminutive Cambodian gentleman in the flower fields across from the now defunct Sky Valley Driving Range: after two years of friendly waves from me and hearty jingles from Gladys no longer scowls when I approach him (see post and photo 3/21/2010). I stopped to visit the other day and he returned my “Good Morning!” with a cheery greeting and a smile. Although I’m certain we’ll be on a first name familiarity soon, for the moment I’ll just call him Elijah Doolittle, the Valley’s male counterpart of Shaw’s Cockney flower girl Eliza. Elijah was bundling peony buds, and I learned he refrigerates them for three weeks to a month and then on demand brings them out to blossom. He laughs when I ask him what my wife would think if I kept bundles of buds in our fridge in suspended animation.

And then there was Sargent Bob (see post 7/26/2010), friendly and harmless enough when afoot, but a terror on two wheels when cycling in the Valley. A near collision with an inattentive Sarge on the shoulder of the Loop Road last summer may not have strained our friendship, but spur of the moment evasive action on my part strained some muscle in a rather sensitive area and frequently reminds me of the event whenever I’ve spent too much time in the saddle of the riding lawnmower,

Viviane tells me she makes a point of talking to strangers in checkout lines. And I do, too. Have for years. The way I look at it, my age allows me the courtesy of that privilege--as long as I preface my pronouncement with a smile, don’t overstep propriety of decorum or by no means become a bother. The lady in line behind you has a bundle of collard greens in her basket…. Ask her how she prepares them (“Simmer together the greens with a smoked ham hock for three or four hours…). Your dinner guests will be lavish with their compliments….

And today at Freddie’s for instance. A sign declaring sixty-eight cents a pound (Father’s Day special??) draws me to a display of broccoli. Right off I notice the crowns are long on stalk and short on the good stuff. I think, “A little stalk is tolerable, but too much stem is less than subtle, obvious price-gouging to me.” After all Freddie’s is selling the item by the pound, right? A bargain should be just that, so surreptitiously I snap off the excess of marrow from the first two stalks. A lady approaches the bargain table and abruptly halts my trimming. She begins to paw through the crowns. “Quite long on stalk, don’t you think,” I remark. She smiles, nods, and points to a crownless stalk. “Looks like someone else thinks the same.” Since the lady looks like she had only bargains and dinner on her mind, I admit to being the culprit. She smiles again, stuffs her produce sack—heavy on stalk--and heads off, I suppose, to the package sauces aisle. I’m about to abbreviate another stalk when a second woman sidles up from behind. Same greeting (… “a bit heavy on stalk….”); different audience. It’s a bit easier to confess my dastardly doings a second time. Instead of backing away or reaching for her cell phone to speed dial 911, she holds up a crown and points to the stalk. “I trim the end, peel the stalk, slice it thinly, and add it to my salad.” “Ah!” I say, “just like….” “Water chestnuts,” she finishes my sentence, fills her bag, and moves off to hold some tomatoes to her nose.

Such a simple yet practical way to utilize the whole of a vegetable, I think—get the full value from your money--and if I hadn’t talked to a stranger in the produce department of Fred Meyers, I never would have had such a practical idea myself.

So whenever possible, I say, smile and strike up a conversation with a stranger. I did with Viviane and came away with a friend. You might do the same, and if not, chances are you’d at least improve your salad. (The lady knew what she was about: our salad last night had that crunchy oriental texture of water chestnuts.)

However, if you’re afoot in the Valley, and a stranger stops to offer you a ride; and you notice there’s a chainsaw on the seat beside him; and he looks like he’s dressed for a Halloween party, this might be the time to heed that timeless advice your mother gave you and: “Never talk to strangers!”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Crossing Over in the Valley: the Abridged Edition…

Riley Slough  Bridge Loop Road

One metaphor often “mixed,” or botched, even, is “that’s all water under the bridge,” meaning the past is past;  you can neither change nor retrieve it.Today I heard the trope misused again: “ That’s all water over the bridge.” Far be it from me to be Professor Metaphor, but it’s “water UNDER the bridge” and “water OVER the dam [not UNDER].”Both those man-made structures are built to address watercourses in some way: bridges to “bridge” water; a dam to hold it back. Water under a dam is not a good thing, nor is water over a bridge. But I guess  it’s better to misuse a metaphor than abuse the purpose of either structure.

Now if  you want to serve up your metaphor with “it’s  water over the bridge,” the Valley will accommodate you courtesy of Bridge 52 on the Lower Loop Road. Gladys and I slipped/slid our way across that silted road surface earlier this year after the flood waters from Riley Slough receded. Flood debris was obvious in both the upstream and downstream bridge rails. Water had indeed flowed… over the bridge.

On our way home the other day Gladys and I noticed an official white van parked just south of Bridge 155 on the Loop Road. Flashing yellow lights winked at us from the rear of the vehicle. We pulled alongside and noted the official tri-tree emblem on the side of the van shading the words “Snohomish County Public Works: for official use only.” Ah, official business, eh? When I see those words I always think: “Just what’s this official business  anyway; how will it affect me; and what’s it going to cost this taxpayer?” These days it seems Government is all too eager to meddle in our business. I decide to find out what this official County business is about, do some meddling of my own. After all, what business could be more “official” than the Ripple’s?Co. Bridge technicianTwo official business men have their noses stuck in maps when I pull up. “You fellows lost?” I say by way of making my presence known. “No,” the driver replies, “we know where we are and where we want to go but can’t find the road to get there.” “And where might your “go to” place be?” I inquire. At this point my interview stalls; the driver seems reluctant to share this information. “Strange,” I think, “what clandestine shenanigans are these guys up to!” Never before have I met a Government official in the Valley who was reticent in the slightest to talk with me (see posts 12/15/2010 and 2/23/2011). The driver, a fellow about my age and his co-officiant, a younger fellow about the age I used to be twenty years ago, became rather evasive. Sometimes tongues will wag when the press is present—especially if their owners are the newsworthy subjects. “I write a Valley blog,” I share, “just offering up the local news to my readers.” By their response  you’d have thought I was from the National Enquirer. When I asked if I could take their pictures, the passenger official exited the vehicle and put himself behind it. The driver smiled reluctantly and told me: “They don’t like us to have our pictures taken. “Why?” I ask. “You're not in a Krispy Kreme parking lot or at the drive-up window of a bikini espresso stand.” He just shrugged.

The driver at last ‘fesses up. Their official business? To conduct the mandatory two-year inspection of County Bridge 155. Bridge inspection? Where moments before mum was the word, now the information flows freely. I’m talking to a “Bridge Technician,” I learn, and the next thing I know, I’m getting a brief history lesson that takes me back to the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower (“I Like Ike!”) and the President’s desire to put in place a national transportation infrastructure so Americans could drive with ease throughout this great land and see its wonders up close and personal.

That infrastructure included bridges, of course.  And each bridge became a part of the transportation grid inventory. Thus the National Bridge Registry (NBR) was born. All traffic-bearing bridges in the country, twenty feet or more in length, are listed on the NBR. The Feds require each state to inspect its bridges every two years. This responsibility falls to the governance of each state county and parish in the country. I’m told bridge integrity is based on a scale of 1 to 100. Bridges with ratings of 70 and above require no special attention; less than that may result in minor structural repairs;Minor repairs needed ratings less than 50 usually mean weight restrictions on the structure (thus weight allowance signs for certain bridges); some bridges should just plain be replaced (I learn the old bridge spanning Broadway in Everett has a scary rating of 6).

The State Department of Transportation requires this bridge technician and his County office to inspect all 200 bridges in the County (including the metal footbridge over Wood’s Creek from Monroe’s City Park to Buck Island) and submit their reports to WSDOT. It’s time for the  two-year mandatory inspection of County Bridge Number 155.

At this point Bridge Technician Sr. and Bridge Technician junior grade don their official orange inspection vests, gather up their probes, hammers and clipboards, and make their way down the bank to inspect the underbelly of Tualco Loop Bridge 155. The Ripple asks, and is granted, permission to stumble along.

I can see why only trolls live beneath bridges. The underside of a bridge is not a pleasant place to visit. And that’s not just because of the stench of creosote. It’s dark, dank, and in my observation just a bit spooky, not unlike looking at the underside of your shiny automobile when it’s up on racks for service—less, of course, a slough and weeds.Co. Bridge troll Here’s a short biography of Bridge 155. She’s (don’t know if a bridge is feminine like a ship, but I’ll give the lady her due) a two span bridge, rated at 20-25 ton capacity. “Technicians” don’t determine this rating, I’m very quickly told; “engineers” determine the construction parameters of any given span based on ADT, “average daily traffic.” (You’ve all seen those rubber tubes spanning a section of road from time to time, the ones we’ve all jumped up and down on a few times so we can stomp and be counted—you’ve done it. I know…. That’s how ATD is determined.)  It’s ADT that gave BR 155 different structural specifications thaLower Loop Bridgen its sister bridge to the west on the Lower Loop Road. That bridge is all wood construction, a wooden deck surface and supports. Bridge 155 has a cement deck and asphalt surfacing. Technician Sr. shows me the imprints the wooden forms left after the cement was poured.cement decking He points out other things, too. (“Like bridges? I’d like to show you mine!”) I ask about the hot pink numbers and letters sprayed on the bridge pilings. “They’ve been ‘refreshed,’ he tells me, “painted over the old lettering. Lets other inspectors know the bridge has been checked.”pier 4 While the Jr. tech climbs through the weeds and cross timbers, his partner shows me the “flood flanges,” metal brackets fastening the bridge decking to the pilings. Both Riley Slough bridges, as Valley folks know, are in flood hazard zones. Flood waters could lift the bridge deck timbers and float them off the piers; without these metal straps, both bridges during flood events could become literal “floating bridges.”flood strap

By this time my nose was starting to twitch from the creosote, and I felt I had spent enough time in troll country. I thank Sr. for taking the time to share such “official”bridge information with the Ripple. I extend my hand, introduce myself. The handshake is returned but without an introduction. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever exchanged my name with a fellow without the courtesy of his name in return. There’s that evasiveness again. Strange…. Equally strange that he readily gives me the name of his supervisor and his partner “Mike,”although this could well have been an aka.

I clamber back up the bank into the sunlight and leave the two technicians to tap and probe their way through the underpinnings of the bridge, let them get on with the routine two year physical exam of Bridge 155. Astride Gladys again, I roll onto the bridge, think about that 20-25 ton traffic rating and shout: “Let me know if the bridge sags or sways as we cross!”

No answer other than the occasional heavy thump of hammers on wood. The two County trolls were hard at their work, official work….

Friday, June 10, 2011

It’s a Long Way Down Off that High Horse: A Valley Garden Lament…

Contented cows

I happened upon Jim Werkhoven the other day. The morning was chilly, more spring-on-hold weather, and Jim was warming up his left ear with his Blackberry. Gladys and I slowed our torrid pace and as we passed, I threw a question over my shoulder, a question I smugly knew the answer to. “Got your corn in yet?” Jim switches the Blackberry to his other ear and multi-tasks an answer: “No, not all of it,” Jim replies and shakes his head in frustration.

Days later I ride by the Werkhoven cornfields and lament the neat furrows bristling with newly sprouted green spears, recall my last exchange with Jim and am reminded of my braggadocio in an earlier post (“Bragging Rights in the Valley…,” May 15th). Now it appears this fall’s fritters won’t come from our corn patch; I’ve had my bragging rights revoked.

It’s been my experience here in the Valley that each year’s gardening season presents new challenges. There’s the weather, sure, but then there’s always the weather and it’s predictable for the weather to be unpredictable: late frosts nip the tomato plants you started indoors in woodstove warmth. Rain, wind, and the occasional freak hailstorm wreak havoc on the backyard garden plot. But we’re all used to that here in the Valley. No, it’s Mother Nature’s menagerie I’m talking about now, those animal and insect pests that pass through your plantings and leave fatter than they came. If it weren’t for the traffic noise at night, I’m sure you could hear the slugs and snails grinding away on the leaf vegetables. I’ve had renegade raccoons pull down my corn, strip the ears from the stalks, and hold their own nocturnal golden jubilation. A couple seasons back I mistakenly planted my cucumbers over a major mole run and discovered cucumbers are not epiphytic: the roots dried up; so did the plants, shriveling that year’s pickle production. Last year it was a rabbit, a young cottontail that blazed a well-worn bunny trail from the woodshed to the carrots and mowed down the carrot tops like a vegematic. And when the carrots were topless, bunny moved on to the lettuce and pastured there. Dogs and cats stray through the tilled patch and with unerring aim tramp on the seed beds, plod down the new sown rows like they’re walking a chalkline. And that loosely turned soil? It’s just one big sandbox servicing all the cats in the neighborhood.

And then there are the birds. As soon as the last blueberry is set, robins set up camp in the shade of the bushes and siesta there, awaiting the first blue blush. Little brown birds do the same in the raspberry row, ever vigilant for the first pink to appear. In the years before the Qualco digester added its spark to the Valley, I would back my truck up to the huge pile of manure that collected beneath the separator, shovel the bed full of organic and head back to enrich the garden plot. One of these loads, for some strange reason, contained a considerable amount of corn kernels. Before I had a chance to till in the manure, a flock of pigeons discovered the corn and moved in to feed. When the corn was gone, the pigeons noticed the garden peas, helped themselves, and when I was off the property for a few days, uprooted an entire row of newly sprouted seed. Before the grape arbor collapsed, you always knew when the grapes were ripe. A cloud of starlings would descend on the vines. Then there would be one giant communal belch issuing from the flock as they rose from the stripped the vines, scattering the landscape with grape seed. And the walnut tree’s first crop? A flock of fifteen crows hauled off the nuts before the squirrels even had a chance.

Now this year’s corn fritters have frittered away because of a new avian issue: jays, a pair of ‘em who have nested somewhere in the vicinity. In my May fifteenth post, I mentioned the missing seed from a furrow I had sowed but left uncovered. I told myself then those jays would be problematic. Do I know jays, or what! Sure enough: that corn seed I planted, that very seed I got into the ground before the johnnies-on-the-spot, those kings of silage, the Werkhovens—a first ever for this backyard gardener—was doomed. No sooner had the first corn spiral of garden 2011 surfaced from the soil than the better half of Mr. and Mrs. Jay swooped down and plucked it from ground before the unsuspecting sprout could throw its first leaf. Before long, each corn row looked like a cribbage board, each hole the exact diameter of a bluejay’s beak. This farmer is nothing if not persistent. I took a dowel, pushed it down each beak hole, and dropped in a fresh seed, covered it up.

Wait a week. Up came the corn. Down came the jay. Up came the corn seed. The jay feasted on the green sprouts—corn salad—and then tossed them off with the swollen kernels. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” How about three times? Four? The farmer’s persistence, time immemorial: I doweled, redoweled, planted and replanted. You know, there comes a time when you’re up against that kernel of truth: your corn patch is the jays’ salad bar and there you have it. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A jay’s smorgasbord. And you’re paying the tab.

I try a diversion tactic: insert an ear of field corn on the birdfeeder, but that proves futile. The kernels disappear off the cob row after row…but there’s that maize salad bar, you know. The collective term for a flock of crows is “ a murder of crows,” and murder is on my mind now: a murder of jays. With me the triggerman. But I think of the jays: how much we enjoyed their jaunty presence at the feeding stations this winter…their blue perkiness to liven up a dreary winter’s day. And now that the jays think the garden is one big feeding station, and then treat them to a hefty dose of # six birdshot? The irony of it all was too overwhelming. Out came the tiller—I’ll show ‘em-- and what few sprouts remained I tilled under.

So as I ride past Werkhovens’ newly sprouted corn, it’s with a keen sense of loss. “From braggart to corn pauper in the space of three short weeks,”I think as I ride on home to the first vegetable garden we’ve had in the Valley that won’t have three or four rows of sweet corn swaying in the breeze on a hot summer’s day. But our loss is the Corn King’s gain. Looks like the corn for our fall fritters this season will be courtesy of Kurt’s Vegetable Stand.

And the new, empty garden space? Well, I’ve planted rows of beans in the void. If the jays choose to feast on bean sprouts, at least they’ll be singing a different tune!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gesundheit! in the Valley…

Pollen fog

If you have allergy problems, you might want to skip this post. A few weekends ago I visited my youngest brother Keith in Eastern Washington. Keith is a staunch believer in health food drinks. His morning fare is a vegetable smoothie, a mash of kale, spinach, chard (dandelion greens?)—and, Brother told me, a heaping spoonful of bee pollen. Now between you and me, I’d much rather down a tall glass of orange juice with my Fred Meyer bran flakes than salad greens and pollen pulverized in an Osterizer. There’s something about “green”for breakfast that is sooo not “green.” Green eggs and ham…? Ughhhh!

Healthy lifestyles folk maintain that just about everything associated with the honeybee is beneficial to humans: “Whatever’s good for the bee, is also good for me.” There’s the honey and honeycomb, for sure. Propolis, the sticky substance bees gather from tree and plant sap (cottonwoods in the Valley) to chink cracks, seal hive lids, and gorilla glue together the internal parts of their hive, purportedly has anti-bacterial properties. Russian folk medicine advises a propolis plaster to remove corns. One of my honey customers, an immigrant from Khazakhstan, told me that balls of propolis are readily available in street markets throughout the country.

Royal jelly is a high protein (nearly 50% protein) “sauce” fed to specially chosen worker bee larvae and is thus called because it is the essential diet they need to become queen bee adults. Young worker bees between the ages of five—to fifteen days old produce this milky substance with their hypopharyngeal glands by synthesizing pollen and honey. Researchers maintain that royal jelly contains all known amino acids, is high in vitamin and hormones. Studies of royal jelly have shown the pudding-like gel, like propolis, possesses bactericidal properties. Because of royal jelly’s high hormonal content and its ability to transform the lowly worker bee into a super bee, the queen of the hive, some believe this elixir can work miracles for them in their own personal arena of “the birds and the bees,” if you know what I mean.

And let’s not forget that potent venom sack each bee’s sting is primed with. Even this nasty juice reputedly has medicinal properties. I’ve heard it said there’s a very small incidence of arthritis among beekeepers but can cite no specific studies to validate this as fact (I’m sure such studies exist…). Bee sting therapy or “apitherapy” has been used on sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis and with some claims of success, too. I don’t know about that…seems to me bee stings might work as a distraction: the substitution of one species of pain for another. Some years back at my wife’s request I strategically applied a sting on the large knuckle of her  troublesome left thumb. The effect? Pain, swelling, and an itchy thumb for days after. But, she told me, she has OSTEO arthritis. So there went one wasted bee sting (and bee).

Now back to my brother and his pollen-laced smoothie. Keith spoons the pollen into his breakfast tonic because of its high nutritional value and protein content. Pollen, like royal jelly, is nearly fifty % protein. You might say it’s the bread of life for the honeybee colony. You can purchase containers of pollen at health food stores. Keith does. He told me he pays nearly seventeen dollars for a jar of the stuff. His pollen is not local pollen, which many folks seek because they maintain local pollens ameliorate their allergies. Most of the pollen sold in naturopathic stores is foreign; some is international; a goodly amount comes from our own southwest desert regions. Unprocessed honey such as my bees produce, honey extracted straight from the comb—unstrained and unheated—contains pollen grains, another reason why local honey is a sought after commodity. I always kept a few small jars of bee pollen in my inventory along with the honey I sold roadside here in the Valley because every season a handful of customers would ask for it. For those curious about the product, I would emphasize pollen’s nutritional value over its repute as an anti-allergen.

Field bees collect pollen on their large hind legs using their first and second pair of legs to work the sticky substance into the pollen baskets on the tibia portion of the hind legs until a plump pollen pellet is formed on each. Back to the hive they go, two pellets at a time. Both are removed and packed tightly into the comb cells for later use. The bees store the pollen in designated pollen combs, usually on the outer edges of the cluster of brood frames.pollen frame

I thought I’d throw some of the Valley pollen into my brother’s smoothie and installed a pollen trap on one of my hives.Pollen trap This form of entrapment actually is wire mesh thievery. The pollen-laden bee is forced to climb through layers of a certain gauge wire mesh one leg at a time. On the way to deliver her goods, she crawls through the layer of screen which deftly scrapes the pellet from each hind leg.Trap's wire maze The pollen then falls through a straining screen into a collection basket which is little more than a removable tray one slides out to retrieve the collected pollen.Pollen basket filterPollen pellets come in a variety of colors depending upon their floral source. Hazelnut pollen, collected in late January and February is a pale yellow color as is willow. Dandelion pollen is a lovely orange. Some pellets are nearly white.Collecting tray In the collection tray one is likely to see green pellets, purples, and some nearly black creating a veritable pallet of pollen pellets. 


Pollen is an essential ingredient in the nutritional health and development of colony strength; therefore, pollen traps should be reValley pollenmoved after a few days’ use to allow this vital substance to flow freely into the hive again.

So good health from the Valley to you, Brother Keith. Enjoy your breakfast smoothie on us. 

pollen tubes






What about bee poop, you ask? No claims of medicinal qualities I know of for that bee “by-product” yet. But certainly there are on-going studies  somewhere….

Regarding bee droppings: the litigious neighbor of a self-respecting, innocuous beekeeper, frustrated at the incessant speckling of his cars (his driveway was beneath the bees’ flight pattern) by his neighbor’s busy bees, sued for property damage. The case came to court, the claimant presented his argument, and a judgment was handed down in favor of the beekeeper and his employees. The court ruled, “You can’t diaper a bee.” Case closed.