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Friday, October 28, 2011

Got Orange?….

Pumpkin field…October, when the world is pumpkin wonderful…

(with apologies to e.e. cummings)

As Gladys and I looked over my shoulder and she over her fenders today, we could see a gauzy curtain of snow settling on Mt. Pilchuck and the Cascades. The garden shivers and daily the summer colors fade, chameleon-like, into winter’s drab. In fact most of the color is gone, exchanged for brown decay…all color, that is, except one. Orange. Yes, orange rules these days. In our garden mounds of orange announce themselves where they have plumped up above the leaves. I have watched them nearly from blossom to globe, first green softballs, then to soccer balls, and now orange basketballs. In summer they seem to grow larger by the day. Now they squat in their orange splendor, wondering what’s in store for them next.Pumpkin porch

Yes, orange is the color of the day. On porches and railings, guarding sidewalks, bulging from bins at the grocery stores or piled along storefronts like some Cristo study in orange. I saw three large truckloads of pumpkins cruise by the house heading south, destiShelves of orangenation most likely Remlinger Farms. Beebe's flower stand offers any color you want these days, as long as it’s orange. For the pumpkin purchaser’s convenience three sizes of pumpkin bear price tags: you have your five dollar globe, your three dollar Momma bear Pick your takepumpkin, and your dainty diminutive for just a buck. And Kurt’s vegetable stand is a blur of orange as you drive by.

Pumpkins are really just a species of edible gourd. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word appears in literature (the pumpkin is a very literary vegetable, you know) as early as 1647 and gives variant spellings of “pumkin, “pomkin,” and “punkin.” The word seems to have some onomatopoeic value: “plumpkin/pumpkin”--(a “pumped up” kin?). Displaying the crop

Pumpkins dominate the season; the rites of fall center around this cheerful gourd. Just watch a child walk by a stack of pumpkins, see him stop dead in his tracks in wonder. Wander with your children through a pumpkin patch and watch their confusion: so many…which one? (Chances are it will be the largest…and guess who has to tote the globe to the car?) It’s the pumpkin latte time of year. Soon there’ll be that wedge of golden brown pie crowned with whipped cream daring you to find just a little more room for it after the holiday feast. The pumpkin is the patron saint of Halloween; if you don’t have a globe hollowed out and spitting candlelight when the spirits of the eve stop by to call, well I guess you’re the Grinch of Halloween. Get in the spirit of orange or your car might just be transformed into a pumpkin on All Saints’ Day!Pumpkin sincerity

I can’t recall a year we didn’t have a pumpkin patch in the backyard garden. (If nothing else, we are sincere gardeners.) If you have children, they deserve their own pumpkin patch. Pumpkins are easy to grow—and unlike tomatoes they aren’t vulnerable to late blight—and they’re much cheaper from your own garden: at twenty-nine cents a pound some of those big fatties can run up your bill.

At harvest time I would clip the stems from the stalks and my daughter would lift one at time, line them up, and count back down the row after she placed each one. I was mercenary even in those times and I’m ashamed to admit now, but I would warn my little girl as she struggled with each heavy pumpkin: “Be careful not to snap the stems or you won’t be able to sell them.” Those were the days I sold honey roadside. After the wares were displayed on the bed of the truck, daughter and I would line the driveway with our pumpkins. Reader boards, garish signs, or search lights couldn’t have been better advertising than that row of orange globes highlighting  the driveway. Even though just up the road Kurt’s vegetable stand had pumpkins galore, city folk, dazzled by orange, would stop and buy one of our pumpkins. When they asked the price, (I would tell them the proceeds were for my daughter’s college education… her“yellidge” education, she called it… and the cash would leap happily from their wallets).  Every nickel eventually went to the U of W, I’m sure. We would sell all our entire crop, a dozen or so, the first couple of weekends in October. Field PumpkinsWith so many pumpkin patches in the area, plus the truckloads of orange that are available everywhere, I’m amazed all these pumpkins find homes; however, every season as October 31st approaches, these mountains of gourds have dwindled away until just a few misshapen orphans remain. (Seems to me I remember viewing the hippo exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo several years ago where a keeper was tossing pumpkins into the cavernous mouths of the huge “river horses” who crunched them between their jaws like they were eating grapes.)

Our former neighbors “Those Rollers,”to my knowledge, are the biggest advocates of the cheerful gourd. Their other gardening efforts were less than spectacular, but where pumpkins were concerned, those Rollers were most sincere--Mr. Darren Roller particularly so. (Darren was a responsible dog owner, too, and shortly after his family moved in next door, he erected an electric fence to discourage his American Bulldog “Big Otis” from wandering over to our place and inflicting serious damage by lashing us with that ever happy tail of his.)

Also a responsible pumpkin grower, Darren erected a hog wire fence along our property line to keep his pumpkins from trespassing. One season a pumpkin tried to escape his patch, was most sincere about squeezing its way through the mesh, nearly did, and but fOn the fenceor a rapid growth spurt, would have succeeded, too. The pumpkin’s plumping itself into captivity destined it for the carving knife; on Halloween day it was eviscerated where it hung. I cut a grimace into its posterior and posed it with a grinning Kyle Roller (Kyle is the one on the left, by the way). Jack and friendHalloween eve, its innards aglow, Jack ‘o the Fence smiled away as if it were a spirit hovering midair.

Jack's braces

Most pumpkins this time of the year are destined for carving. In fact pumpkin carving has developed into a fine art…something about the orange skin of the squash that makes it a rotund canvas for those skilled with a knife. (A local pumpkin artist I hear has recently been invited to the White House to display her talents. I believe she intends to gouge the likeness of Kim Kardashian into the flesh of a carefully selected gourd. A waste of talent, time and pumpkin it seems to me…although I wouldn’t mind a bit if Kim—or the whole lot of the Kardashians, for that matter—were changed into pumpkins.) No talent like that around here for our garden pumpkins. Just enough crude geometry to allow the candlelight to seep into the darkness. However, we do have a pumpkin tradition in our family that requires no more talent other than a basic level of literacy. The flesh of the pumpkin is easily scarified and while the pumpkins are still in their “green” form, each year I carve the name of a family member or friend into their skins. Come pumpkin picking time, those so “personalized” are invited into the garden to claim their pumpkins. I’ve attached a couple examples past…and present:Personalized pumpkin




Aside from pumpkin aesthetics these globes, too, are the stuff food is made of; you don’t have to be a hippo yourself to enjoy the taste of pumpkin. At their dinnertime my favorite lady detective, Precious Ramotswe of Botswana (Alexander McCall Smith’s “The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency”series), frequently brings home a fat pumpkin for husband Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni and their two adopted children. I think those who settle for pumpkin that has been scooped out of a store-bought can are missing out on the real thing if they don’t set aside some orange for the kitchen, bake it and use its flesh for a variety of delightful dishes. 

This weekend I will harvest the most sincere pumpkin from the season’s crop, set it beside the woodstove to warm (I simply can’t abide thrusting my hand into the chilly innards of a pumpkin), and most likely carve into my victim a primitive face very much the same as last year’s.

And if you haven’t done so already, I expect you’ll do likewise. October thirty-first is almost upon us, so go fetch the pumpkin and weapon of your choice, put your talent to the sticking place, and carve a face guaranteed to delight those who’ll show up on your doorstep to collect their annual quota of empty calories.

Oh, yes…and don’t forget to roast the seeds!Alas, poor jack

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Man Outstanding in his Field…

Farmer MattThat would be Matt Frohning… except when he’s in the cab of his big John Deere tractor circling a cornfield cutting corn for silage. Here I am at the Frohning Farm by the home cornfield. Earlier in the day Matt had agreed to let me ride along while he cut a few swaths around the field.

Recently I heard of a Massachusetts family who, according to the wife, had become hopelessly lost in a rural corn maze. In a panic she called 911  and emergency services showed up with police rescue dogs and guided the family of three (the third was a three week old infant!) all of twenty-five feet to safety. I’m not afraid to ride with Matt, however: if there’s one thing Matt Frohning knows for sure it’s his way around a cornfield.Corn chopper

This field is the second Matt will finish today.“I just moved down from Gramma’s,” he laughs. “You’re right on time. I just finished the first round.” I’m excited to climb aboard….”Let’s chop some corn!” I think. Matt, however, hops down and disappears somewhere in the general direction of the farm buildings, leaving the big tractor, jaws bulging with corn stalks, idling in front of a full hopper of freshly cut silage.

While I wait to mount up, I take a few photos, check out the family garden, admire the plump globes in the pumpkin patch. Matt returns. Apparently Phil, who drives the silage truck, has been given a new route from field to silage bunker. (No MapQuest, it appears, in that tired, old farm truck.) The truck finally lumbers into view. Matt climbs up into the John Deere and the truck eases alongside. The hopper lifts and tips, spilling the silage into the truck bed. Now we’re going to chop that corn, I hope! But no…Matt hops down and guides Phil along the new route and disappears again. For the next fifteen minutes fifty dairy cows and I have a stare down which is easily won by a dainty brown cow with Jo Anne Pearson eyes (a classmate from my high school days; we called her “Cow Eyes.” And for good reason!)Little Brown eyes

I wait. The corn waits. The cows stare. The tractor chugs away. (Was that a wink from the little brown-eyed cow? Is she flirting…?) Where’s Matt, I wonder…. Let’s get at that corn! Finally he strides into view. Matt’s thick beard parts in a cheerful grin. “A few minor technicalities,” he explains. I learn the ancient truck has mechanical problems…something about overheating…later Matt will have to pull its radiator, check it out…. In the meantime another truck has been called into service and is on its way for the next load. “Let’s get rollin’,” Matt says as he clambers aboard. “No need to stand there waiting!”I pull myself up the steps to the cab and settle inside beside Matt. Into the corn

A yank or two on the control levers and the rhythmic thrum of the tractor turns into a roar. We rock forward and the tall cornstalks bow before us, fall beneath the cutter’s tines, and feed into the chopper. Matt skillfully rounds a corner, doesn’t miss a single stalk. The tractor rocks and rolls, churning ahead through the standing corn. And my camera is rocking and rolling in video, too—a first for The Ripple. I look down and watch the cornstalks fold and gather below and disappear into the machinery. I have the feeling I’m riding the back of a living beast, ravenous for corn, its appetite insatiable as it chomps and grinds its way through the towering stalks.

Above the roar of the machinery I shout questions about the tractor and equipment. Matt shouts back answers. His setup cuts four rows a pass. I counter with a questions about the monster twelve row cutters that Werkhovens employ. “It’s a difference in horsepowFilling the hopperer,” Matt explains. “I’m running 300; those big rigs are 1,000.” I ask about the cutter itself and learn the tines fold and direct the stalks to the chopper in the center of the machine. What look to me like two whirling tubs or two stacks of tambourines grab the stalks and auger them into the cutter to be chopped. I glance over my shoulder and watch a green stream of silage spurt from a tube into the hopper.

When the hopper bulges, Matt stops the tractor, waits for the last bite to disappear into the chopper, and shuts down the cutter. The roar subsides to a hum, and while Matt waits for Phil and the silage truck, I ask more questions. This is the second of five fields Matt will cut for the family farm, approximately 78 acres—one tenth of what the Werkhovens cut for their herd. The field we’re cutting, I learn, is about six acres. One circuit yields about twenty-one ton of silage, and Matt is pleased with this year’s crop which he is sure will surpass last year’s. Matt does a little figuring and estimates the field will yield around 240 tons for the Frohning Farm bunkers. I know once the silage is dumped in the bunkers, it must be packed to squeeze all the oxygen out of the “mash.” If this weren’t done, the silage wouldn’t cure properly. “Are you packing it now? I ask. Matt shakes his head. “Too wet yet; the bottom layers would turn to mush.” Matt tells me it’s fairly common to lay down a layer of sugar beet pulp first to absorb the excess moisture from the wet silage. The pulp comes from the midwest somewhere, but because of the late season, perhaps, Matt has been unable to find a supplier.Dumping the hopper

The silage truck eases alongside, the big hopper lifts, tilts, and dumps five or six ton of green confetti into the truck. When the truck pulls away, Matt shifts a couple levers, engages the cutter, and off again we roar into the corn.

At the next lull in activity when the big tractor shifts into the quieter mode, I have more questions to ask. I know Matt farms for hire, and we’re riding in what I’m sure involved considerable capital outlay for him. Matt is quite willing to talk about his financial commitment, and without putting too much of his finances up for scrutiny, The Ripple will report some of what he shared. Two years ago Matt took out a loan for the big John Deere including the cost of the corn cutter attachment. Added to the loan, too, was a processor implement which crushes the corn if the crop is particularly dry.   (Matt has yet to put this attachment to the test. Little wonder in this Valley of rain, fog and damp.) Let’s just say Matt has invested in farming to the tune of slightly less than 100k. “When do you plan to have the rig paid for?” I ask. Matt grins. “Six years, I hope. Last spring I had a minor technicality that set me back a little.” He had taken the rig in for its annual maintenance and as is too often the case with such checkups, something major turned up. In Matt’s case the “minor technicality” involved some gearbox work to the tune of nearly 6k. In the meantime his monthly payments would rent him a fairly nice apartment in Seattle.

This is Matt’s bread and butter season. Today he’s cutting the family corn but he tells me, “I could be cutting in Duvall right now.” Twenty-nine hours of work wait for him in Snohomish. “That should earn me six thousand, less the five hundred for fuel,” figures Matt. I shake my head and think, “That barely covers his ‘minor technicality.’” When Werkhovens start harvest October 17th, Matt will be out in one of their fields. “How many months of the year do you operate?” I ask. Matt thinks for a moment, checks off the months on his fingers and stops at six. “The nice thing about the off months,” he laughs, “is I don’t have to worry about fuel or mechanical problems. Downside is I still have my payments to make.”

In the hour and a half I spend with Matt I learn about the process of chopping silage; I learn about the Frohning farm, the acreage it needs to feed their dairy herd; and I learn something about the equipment and economics needed to operate a small family farm. To be sure, I’m the wiser for all this. But as I leave the field, I think the most important thing I learned is about the character of a young man, a young man with a passion for farming, a young man with a vision for the future. I watched those large, work-hardened hands skillfully guide that big machine down the rows. I listened and heard in his deep voice the enthusiasm for farming, the pure enjoyment in his work and a sense of pride that what he does, he does well.

While Matt was comparing his equipment to the bigger rigs soon to be in Werkhovens’ fields, out of nowhere he produces a farm equipment catalogue. Matt thumbs through it much like the kid, full of Christmas, used to thumb through the Sears Roebuck winter catalogue. I hear the excitement in his voice as he points out one rig after another—all bigger cousins to the one we’re sitting in now. Matt turns to me, a grin spreads that thick beard, and he says almost bashfully : “Sometimes when I’m waiting, I like to look through this.” Men and their machines…men and their dreams….

Life is full of “technical difficulties,”major ones and minor. A farmer’s lot are these and more. It is the attitude with which one confronts his “minor technical difficulties,” shrugs them off and prevails against them that is the measure of a man. And the same holds true for the farmer who measures up, a farmer like the one I rode with this afternoon.Matt tests the corn

Correction: Walter Werkhoven contacted The Ripple to share the following information. The machine his brothers employed to chop their corn was a  2011 472 horsepower model that cut a six row swath per pass. According to Walt, this faster machine filled a ten ton silage truck in less than three minutes.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

To Everything There is a Season…and This is One of ‘Em…

Maple splendor

But for a few laggards, the swallows have left the Valley. So has what little sun and warmth this summer offered. And forlorn is the garden now that the chill of the evenings keep us from our end of the day walks among its rows. The big maple tree in the backyard is splashed with autumn color and more of it drips down on the lawn every day.

Most folks don’t like change; I know I don’t and the transition period between summer and fall in this climate becomes more challenging each year. It is far easier to coast through spring into the longer days of summer, the shorter hours of darkness, longer strolls in the garden. Little wonder the seasons are universal symbols for birth, life, and the time of passing on. And while the preacher Ecclesiastes imparts the sage wisdom that to everything there is a season, a time and a purpose for everything and his words urge acceptance, it doesn’t mean one has to be cheerful about it.

At this time of year summer’s grasshopper shivers, and the ever provident ant scurries a little faster to fill its pantry. Let the wasps and hornets succumb to winter. Let the frost nip the cabbage butterflies. You’ve outlived your time and purpose. Good riddance to you both, I say. But it is a with a true feeling of remorse these shorter days of fall I bid goodbye to that bug of summer, the dragonfly, the insect that converts solar energy into its darting and dipping flight. A lone survivor always lingers on here, it seems, struggling to remain aloft over the yard and garden. Its struggles to extend its existence always evoke a sense of sadness. For the dragonfly, too, has its season, and that season is nearly spent. dragonfly

My feelings for the faltering insect bring to mind a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poet addresses a young girl’s grieving over the passing of spring and summer represented by the dying leaves of fall and tells the child:

Now, no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow’s springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed.

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

And when I ponder my sense of loss, I understand it’s really not about the dragonfly at all.

Today there is a growing sentiment that government is not about the people’s business; backbiting, finger pointing, and partisan wrangling sap its effectiveness. Our two political parties…each of which could be Dickens’ Office of Circumlocution…telling the other “How a thing ought not to be done,”are constantly at each others’ throats, leaving their constituents to fend for themselves and wonder who’s minding the store. But The Ripple is here to tell you that decisions of great import are being made by our State legislature. Acknowledging the gravity of the issue, in 1997 both State Democrats and Republicans set aside their differences, reached across the aisle, shook hands, and gave unanimous bipartisan support to draft and pass RCW 1.20.047, the text of which states:

The common green darner dragonfly, Anax junius drury, is hereby designated the official state insect of Washington.

Findings: “The legislature finds that the common green darner dragonfly, Anax junius drury, can be found throughout Washington and is easily recognizable by its green head and thorax. The legislature further recognizes that the common green darner dragonfly, also know as the ‘mosquito hawk’ is a beneficial contributor to our ecosystem.”

Now isn’t that the decisiveness and leadership we need and expect from our government!

During the long, hot days of summer one of the innumerable daily diversions we had as children was to try to catch dragonflies. There were always two or three darting about over a wide expanse of grass on the boss’s lawn. These “mosquito hawks” were not green darners but red insects, smaller, with orange-tinted wings. We used a number of techniques to capture the bugs: asparagus fronds, spray from a water hose, cheesecloth nets…but they were elusive as ghosts, hovering one second, jetting off the next. They sidestepped a swing of frond or net with ease, flitting vertically or laterally in the wink of an eye, their amazing aeronautics made possible by the intricate manipulations of four glassine wings. Attempt after attempt failed and we soon tired of the effort, moved on to the next diversion, allowing these ruddy hunters to stalk the airwaves at will for any foolish mosquito that entered their airspace.

I was quite a reader even in those days and happened upon some item of natural history that piqued a boy’s curiosity: a technique by which one could catch dragonflies without nets (or asparagus bushes). A child could construct the device with ease; only two supplies were needed: a pebble and a long horsehair, preferably from a horse’s long tail. You lashed the pebble to one end of horsehair and headed for dragonfly territory where you flung the pebble into their airspace, the tail of hair trailing behind. In theory the dragonfly, unwittingly mistaking the pebble for a mosquito, would swoop upon it, become entangled in the horsehair, and plummet to earth where the delighted child would snatch it up. Either for lack of a horsehair or the desire to prowl around a horse pasture in search of one, it was a theory I didn’t then and have yet to test. (If there are any odonataphiles who have used this method with success, please contact The Ripple.) 

But again, to everything there is a season. The dragonfly will come again and then it will be summer, the time  the environmentalist Rachel Carson tells us in Silent Spring when:

“…above a pond the dragonflies dart and the sun strikes fire from their wings. So their ancestors sped through swamps where huge dragonflies capture mosquitoes in the air, scooping them in with basket-shaped legs. In the waters below, their young, the dragonfly nymphs, or naiads, prey on the aquatic stages of mosquitoes and other insects….”

The sun will tilt back to spring, tip further into summer; the soft and balmy evenings will return, for as the wise man said: “That which has been is now; and that which is to be has already been….” The garden will bloom again, and a new dragonfly will share the backyard with us as we wander through the rows.Fall Dragonfly

Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbus Day…

Standing corn

October 10, Columbus Day in the Valley…and everywhere that honors the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, I guess. Of course, today is Columbus Day “observed,” which in essence means many hardworking Americans tear themselves away from the office for another three day weekend. The official Columbus Day is October 12,  Wednesday this year, and it simply wouldn’t do to have such a short break mid-week. Columbus Day, 2011, and I remember where I was this day forty-nine years ago. “So here my history begins for your understanding and my poor telling….”

Seattle, 1962, the year the world gathered around the newly erected Space Needle to celebrate the World’s Fair. Friday, October 12, Columbus Day. I was a struggling freshman at the UW, a provincial country boy straight from sagebrush country suddenly surrounded by the ivied walls of that stately campus, bewildered by academia, and swallowed up in a sea of students 27,000 strong, many of whom, I suppose, were as bewildered as I. Room and lodging that year were with my paternal grandparents, who most likely were equally bewildered at having a teenager in their daily lives.

That fall I became friends with a couple of young men in my English 101 class. Their names escape me, but I still remember their faces. One was a Seattlelite, born and raised there; the other came from out of state. My Seattle friend was short and always had a peppery smell about him; the other, blonde and odor-free. Not that any of that matters, but it’s a way to keep track of them as I wend my way through my story.

My short, peppery friend that summer of the World’s Fair, became quite familiar with the Seattle Center, the Fair venues, and exhibits on the grounds—so familiar, in fact, he knew how to access the fairgrounds without paying admission. The World’s Fair for free! If you are a frugal college kid, what’s not to like about that! So that Friday, October 12, Columbus Day, 1962, with an entire weekend ahead to study, the three of us decided to attend the Fair on the cheap.

That evening was stormy, a mounting wind, the sky unsettled with scudding clouds and the occasional flash of lightning. Around sevenish, Shorty picked up Blondie and swung by my grandparents’ house where I introduced them to my friends and the three of us headed to the Seattle Center. We parked the car and followed Shorty to a cement stairwell, down the stairs and along a short corridor to a heavy metal door. Our guide stopped, gripped the door handle, and grinning superiorly, swung the unlocked door open and ushered us through. How he knew that door would be unlocked, I still have no idea. We proceeded under the stage of the Opera House and arrived in the midst of the World’s Fair free of charge.

We wandered onto the grounds and immediately noticed something was amiss: a Friday night and the Center was nearly deserted. Had we tried to pay our “fair” share of admission, we would have been turned away. Unaware to us, authorities had closed the fairgrounds at 8:00 p.m. due to a severe storm warning. As we strolled about the empty grounds, the storm intensified. Flashes of lightning burst above us. Soon we had to bend into the wind to stay upright and were dodging large metal trash cans that bounced and rattled down the midway like tin cans kicked by a kid. The night boomed and howled around an abandoned Space Needle. As I passed the Needle’s base, I grabbed one of the huge metal nuts that fastened one leg of structure to its base. The vibration was so strong I could hardly maintain my grasp. The shriek of wind through the six hundred foot tower was frightening and we were frightened ourselves. The giant Ferris wheel at the Fun Forest was spinning in the wind like a giant hamster’s cage. Groundskeepers had released its brakes and let the ride freewheel in the wind.

As we struggled along, we were approached by a security guard carrying a bullhorn. The bullhorn blared: “The fair is closed. Get in a building and stay there!” One of the closest buildings—and the one most suitable for three college kids--was the Food Circus. We chose that venue, and there in the safety of exotic food stalls we stayed until 2:00 a.m. when authorities finally gave the all-clear that it was safe to leave.

The great Columbus Day storm, October 12, 1962, proved to be the West Coast’s worst storm of the Century, clocked sustained winds of 70 mph and did millions of dollars damage up and down the coast. That night it terrified me;  it terrified Shorty and Blondie; and terrified my grandparents who spent a sleepless night worrying about a wayward grandson who never had the courtesy to call to say he was safe and sound.

If you were around October of 1962, maybe you remember the Columbus Day storm, where you were, what you did. As the storm of the Century roared through the Center, I was surrounded by the Foods of Foreign Lands. I can’t remember which exotic dishes I sampled over the five hours I was there, but I sampled several. After all, I had extra money to spend, didn’t I?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Look for the News Until it Finds You…

Camera checkIf it’s news you’re looking for, the Valley always delivers. That’s the reason for this blog. It’s a Valley of surprises, our Valley is; something is always happening out there and The Ripple is sure to ferret it out and give you a good accounting. Or while you’re out looking for the news, it  might very well find you first.

Like today, for instance. Gladys and I headed out under oppressive clouds that threatened to bully the Valley with rain. We hadn’t even made it to the corner of Tualco when all of a sudden my feet were windmilling and Gladys was slowing down. “It’s her chain,” I thought. “Just my luck and our Triple A coverage lapsed last month.” Nothing serious, though: apparently when I was fussing with her bell either Gladys or I had shifted into neutral (I suspicion the old gal hadn’t wanted to leave the barn). After shifting around in all three gears a few times, I found second again and it stuck.

A big John Deere tractor trailed by a silage truck was pulling into Gramma Snow’s driveway. It was Matt Frohning cutting the cornfield behind Gramma’s house. Just yesterday Matt had stopped by our place to pick up some beeswax for his dad. (Tim was brewing up  some new recipe for bag balm and one ingredient was beeswax.) I had asked Matt if I could make few rounds with him in the John Deere while he was cutting corn. He said, “Sure, anytime. Just stop when you see the rig in the cornfield and hop on board.” Now I was prepared to take him up on it. “Climb up,” he said, “or wait a couple of hours when I’m in the home field. A lot of blown down corn in this field. Not really much to see. I might not even finish the field.”

Three hours later I’m in the truck heading for the Frohning Farm. As I approach Werkhovens’ Dairy, I see an orange blot in the middle of the road and begin to slow. In the center of the road adjacent to the Werkhoven Dairy (“established 1959”) sign I see a video camera on a tripod, a cameraman behind it checking the settings, and standing before the camera wearing an orange rain jacket stood the subject. “Some sort of promotional shoot,” I reasoned, remembering the commercials the Werkhovens’ have done for the Washington State dairy industry: the one, for instance, about Washington dairy farmers being environmentally-sensitive about their adjacent watersheds…the one promoting a healthy salmon habitat where Jim Werkhoven reminds the “guests” to wipe their feet before he quips, “Besides, we all need a place to spawn, don’t we?”

Just as I’m about to creep by, I notice Andy Werkhoven standing before a handful of people who looked to be part of a tour. Andy was pointing at this, pointing out that to the attentive little group, all of who were engaged by his talk and none of who looked like they were dressed to do any farm work. The cameraman barely nods at me, but the subject in the orange jacket smiles as I pass. I smile back, continue on, but there was something familiar about that smile, that face, its rugged, chiseled features, those blue eyes. It was a face I’d seen many times on t.v.; just two months ago, as a matter of fact, on a Sunday those blue eyes stared out at me for the better part of the day.“What am I doing?” I think. “Here’s more news and I’m leaving it behind. Some reporter you are….” Strange I know it seems but I had just become a shy journalist. I had passed a well-known local celebrity. Did I want to bother him? Thoughts of the recently repatriated Amanda Knox and the  pernicious papparazi came to mind. My little ethics struggle was short-lived: “Yes, I do; yes, I will.”I pull into the driveway behind the calf stalls, grab my camera, and jog back to the photo shoot…

Where those blue eyes were staring into the camera, their owner following the cameraman’s directives, and here I was, third man out. I was interrupting, suddenly felt very exposed, feared I was a bother about to be shooed off. Just as I was about to bow out gracefully, the blue eyes and craggy face turned to me and smiled and in that familiar, husky voice, said: “Thanks for not running over our camera.” “Chip Hanauer!” was all I could blurt at the moment. Yes indeed! Here I was standing by the Werkhoven Dairy (“established 1959”) up close and personal with Chip Hanauer, Seattle’s famous hydroplane driver, boat racer and  Motorsport Hall of Famer, color analyst for KIRO’s coverage of the annual Seafair hydroplane races, t.v. and radio personality. As I  begin to fumble with the lens cover of my camera, Chip says, “We’re here shooting a commercial for the Washington State Dairy Association.”  “So Andy’s conducting the tour?” I asked. Chip nods yes. The only thing I can think to say is that it was good to see Andy in the role of tour guide instead of standing, shovel in hand, in a hole up to the top of his barn boots in green water. Chip laughs and says, “Yes, I guess he does a lot of that.” I tell him I write a Valley blog, was on my way to gather other news, when I happened upon this story.

I feel my shyness start to slip away; the journalist has returned. “Could I take a picture of your cap?” I nod toward Chip’s ball cap on which was a picture of a dairy cow with “Washington State Dairy Association” stitched above it. “It would be good publicity,”I coax. Of course Chip’s hat and the dairy industry were hardly my concern at the moment. Chip poses, gives me a cheerful thumbs up, and that winning grin. I apologize for interrupting, thank him and the cameraman for pausing long enough to talk with me, and head back to the truck. But I can’t leave without sharing a brief part of my history with Chip, turn back and interrupt once again. “When I was a kid,” I tell him, “I had a C Stock outboard hydro (yes, I did indeed. Really.).” Chip smiles. “Belong to The Seattle Powerboat Association?” he asks. I tell him no; I was just a kid who grew up on the banks of the Columbia River, ran the boat there, but never did race. That big grin again: “That’s how I got my start.” The blue eyes twinkle…. And what a start  it was, too, I think!Chip speaks for milk

Back in the truck I head for Frohnings’ farm. “Wow!” I think in disbelief, “Chip Hanauer, famous hydroplane racer right here in our Valley…Chip Hanauer at Werkhovens’ Dairy (“established 1959”)!” And I didn’t even think to shake his hand!!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Wily, Wary and Worrisome: From the Archives…

Standing corn

After the previous post this next posting seems to be particularly appropriate. On the Lower Loop Road a couple weeks ago we startled a coyote in the northwest corner of John Deck’s pasture. What little I saw of it, the coyote looked to be a young one, a yearling, perhaps. It bolted up a slight incline in the field and disappeared before Gladys had a chance to “ting-a-ling”our presence. I never saw it again but noted its progress through the field by the cows’ reactions as they left off their grazing for a moment to watch the interloper pass among them.

One night a while back we opened the bedroom windows to capture the last of summer’s warmth. Sometime after midnight the High Rock hillside came to life with coyotes yakking it up, and for the next few nights they gave an encore. The idea that coyotes howl seems strange to me because they don’t howl at all. (Wolves howl.) Theirs is a concert of yips, yelps, and yaps, a sound of pain, as if they bite themselves and then bark about it.

Coyotes are hardly a threat to adult humans. One has a greater chance being accosted by the neighbors’ Valley dogs than being intimidated by a coyote. Small pets, poultry or livestock are much more susceptible to coyote nabbing. Coyotes are the thieves in the night that carry off your pets.Coyote pup

The North American coyote, Canis latrans, is hardly the Wile E. Coyote so lampooned by cartoon land as a hapless, scruffy critter buffooned by a sassy road runner. In fact Old Man Coyote figures prominently in Native American mythology and folklore because of his wisdom and cunning. This wild dog is the epitome of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”

I’m sure the coyote will be around long after Homo sapiens has gone the way of the dinosaurs. As urban life sprawled into the suburbs, coyotes have adapted quite well to a decreased habitat, making themselves equally at home in the 'burbs. In fact coyotes turn up in some of the strangest places considering those places are dense with human population. Not long ago I read about a coyote discovered napping in a convenience store. Last year three coyotes were spotted in Manhattan on the campus of Columbia University. Another was later seen traipsing across a frozen pond in Central Park. Wildlife authorities theorized the coyotes gained access to the Island via the George Washington Bridge. The canine emigrants apparently had had enough of New Jersey. Certainly no precedent there—even if you’re a coyote.

On my drive to work on Highway Two in the mornings it was not unusual to see a coyote foraging for mice in the adjoining fields. I’ve seen them often as well on rodent detail in the hayfield adjacent to the Lewis Street Bridge. Periodically on the Old Monroe/Snohomish highway one will dart across the road and disappear into the brush. With the expansion of the suburbs and the migration of humans beyond the peripheries of cities, it is inevitable that encounters with displaced wildlife occur. This past spring and summer bears have been a particular problem in Western Washington suburban neighborhoods. As these “wild” creatures become accustomed to their human neighbors, they become emboldened and then the troubles start.

Years ago we had coyote issues here in the Valley. When our daughter was three years old, I heard a report out of northern California that a coyote had nabbed a three-year old child from its backyard, dragged it off into the “green space” beyond the yard and by the time its mother came to the rescue, the child had died from its wounds. Coincidentally, one weekend that October, my wife was amazed to see a large coyote in our backyard. She immediately took a toy broom and went out on the deck to shoo the intruder away. The coyote took a defensive posture, looked at her as if to say: “What’s your problem, lady!” and sashayed through the fence next door and disappeared. I was elsewhere in the house, didn’t see the coyote and was a bit incredulous when my wife told me of the sighting, that the coyote was a large one and its behavior brazen. A coyote in our backyard, our daughter’s playground…I thought about the childnapping in California and hoped my wife had mistaken the animal for someone’s dog.

Mistaken she wasn’t. The next morning as I was standing by the coffeepot, I looked out at the garden and was astonished to see a large coyote chasing our pet rooster, Mr. Fred Rogers, up one row of vegetables and down another. I quickly went to the garage and collected the .410 shotgun I keep there as defense against moles. I crept around the side of the house, keeping the backyard maple tree between me and the marauder. By the time I reached the trunk, Wile E. had caught Mr. Rogers and had him pinned beneath its paws next to the hedge. Just before Fred bought the farm (the rogue rooster was apparently our backyard’s main attraction), I fired a volley of # six shot into the coyote’s shoulder. The shot reeled the critter into the hedge where it quickly recovered and sped away before I could reload. More firepower apparently was needed for a coyote that size. In a highly excited state—and minus his tail feathers-- Mr. R made a beeline for the backyard deck from which for several minutes he unleashed a volley of raucous indignation regarding the rape of his stately tailfeathers.

“Well, that’s that, then,” I thought, “Wile E. won’t return for a second helping of lead.” Two weeks later Fred’s hysterical crowing from our driveway proved me wrong. I ran out to find the coyote in the field fifty feet away with more than tail feathers on its mind this time. Upon my arrival the animal turned and nonchalantly loped off to the west. That was the last time I saw Fred’s nemesis up close and personal. However, from time to time I would see the animal cruising the field behind our property. It always marched the same trail, moved south across the field to the next fence line where it turned east along the fence, trotted across the highway and disappeared into the brush along the banks of Riley Slough.

Because of the coyote’s boldness—and Fred’s presence on the property—we were ever vigilant when our daughter was outside the house.

(That the coyote wasn’t able to kill the tough old bird is testimony to Mr. Rogers’ fowl pluck; in fact, that rogue rooster ruled the roost and terrorized us himself for two or three years; I could write an entire blog about Fred’s notoriety and derring-do; perhaps I will yet. Let me add, it was never a wonderful day in the neighborhood when Fred was on the prowl. Then our backyard became the ‘Hood.)

December thirty-first, the year of the Coyote, just before noon. I was talking to a friend in the backyard and happened to glance at the neighbor’s mobile home south of our fence line. There in a small orchard of gnarled apple trees I spotted the coyote feeding on windfall apples. Coyotes are creatures of habit, so I noted the time and made a point to be on watch the same time next day.

New Year’s Day. Eleven a.m. I load the twenty-two with a rimfire long rifle cartridge, go out on the back deck where I have full view of the orchard and wait. As I’d anticipated, the coyote sauntered out of the brush, wandered into the orchard and started nosing among the fallen apples. My flatbed truck was parked in the driveway. Using the cab to shield me from the coyote’s view, I quickly strode to the truck, and resting the rifle on the bed, I squinted through the little 2X scope at my target. It would not be an easy shot: the target was over a hundred yards away. I rested the crosshairs on the coyote’s shoulder, elevated the barrel slightly, and squeezed off the round. At the rifle’s crack the coyote bolted full tilt toward the west fence line. “Missed the shot!” I groaned, just in time to see the coyote clear the fence, flip head over heels, and collapse in a heap. I carried the large female back to the garden where I buried her and the problem deep beneath the corn rows.Fred's Justice

Now I love wildlife, but I loved my three-year-old more. If she had had the roadrunner’s wit, lightning speed, and lived in cartoon land instead of in the backyard with her swing set, I might have spared this splendid animal. I have seen coyotes periodically around the place. Just last year a large one trotted along our back fence line. Now that my daughter is grown and lives in Seattle in raccoon country, I am content to coexist peacefully with the Valley wildlife, observe and respect it. Do I have any remorse, you ask, for shooting the coyote? Well, perhaps a little: I just wish I wasn’t quite so quick on the trigger when Mr. Fred Rogers was in the coyote’s clutches.