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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bullying Comes to the Valley…

Swan HeavenThroughout the Christmas season most evenings we take a break from the rigors of the day and watch a Christmas movie. Call it our movie advent, if you will. One of our favorites is “The Christmas Story,” or the “You’ll shoot your eye out!” movie. A running storyline involves a couple of back alley ruffians: Scut Farkas (“He had yellow eyes…my God, he had yellow eyes…) and “Grover Dill, his crummy little toadie” who waylay their victims on their way home from school. For these two urchins it’s all about intimidation, harassment, and knuckle sandwiching their peers. In short, they are the neighborhood bullies—or at least until Scut himself gets knuckled under by Ralphie.

Bullying has been around since bigger and smaller/stronger and weaker were invented, and until recently such antisocial behavior has been ignored or disregarded because, for one, it’s always been a fact of human existence, and secondly, it’s hard to root out and eradicate. In the past, public school grounds and classrooms have been the stage for much bullying; however, the internet and social media networks have allowed mean-spiritedness free rein and in many cases online harassment has become downright vicious. Cyber bullying it is called these days and in several instances the end result has been youthful tragedy. Though most schools now have a “no tolerance” policy on bullying, it persists and probably is as prevalent as ever. Besides, the internet is beyond the Public School’s jurisdiction. Even government appears stymied where online intimidation is concerned.

Looking back on my school years, I don’t remember being bullied. Sure, I had a set to with a classmate once in a while, but no bear-baiting (the Brewster Bears…) occurred that to this day has me experiencing post traumatic stress nightmares or cold sweats. I do remember two classmates, brother and sister, who because of their home life, were ridiculed and teased throughout their school years--not bullied in the physical sense, but bullied emotionally certainly. I owned a peripheral share of their torment, I’m not proud to say, and not just because I didn’t come to their defense, either.

For a couple years in my early teens I took to bullying a handful of younger ranch kids, would start in on them as soon as the school bus pulled away. I would terrorize these unfortunates down the long driveway and still to this day, I’m puzzled at my behavior. Perhaps I bullied them because they were younger; perhaps I bullied them because I could; perhaps they were just there. In his memoir “The Thanksgiving Visitor” the writer Truman Capote recalls being tormented by a bully named Odd Henderson. In the midst of one bullying session where Odd had Capote shoved against a wall and was battering him about, the boy asked his assailant just what he had done to be so disliked. Odd replied, “You’re a sissy and I’m just straightening you out.” I don’t believe I perpetrated my misbehavior on my fellow ranch mates for that reason.

The boss’s son was among the kids I bullied, and to get at the roots of the problem, the boss called for a summit meeting between him, my dad and me. Then, like now, I couldn’t explain my behavior, was sullen to the point of being disrespectful. The meeting resolved nothing and amounted to little more than an embarrassment for Dad ( I received a scathing earful afterwards, every word of which I certainly deserved). A day or two later I exited the school bus with vengeance (or my own embarrassment) on my mind, snatched the boss’s kid from the bus’s exhaust, wrestled him out into the orchard and shoved his head in an irrigation ditch. After he was muddied enough, I released him and continued on home where I was sure later that night I would pay dearly for my bullying baptismal.

Days passed. No ax fell. No retribution. No punishment. I was spared, I realized, because my victim, in spite of becoming an ingredient folded into a mud pie, never said a word about the incident. I never bullied him again, and you might say a long friendship forged in a ditch began. I believe that singular incident ended my bullying career. My friend’s keeping mum appealed to my nobler instincts, I guess.trumpeters landing

Perhaps it was my involvement in such antisocial behavior that to this day I’m hypersensitive where bullying of any kind is concerned. Just the other day I was witness to some bullying in the Valley. Although it was bullying of the avian kind, bullying it was nonetheless. As Gladys and I wobbled along the lower Loop Road adjacent to Frohnings’ cornfield, I spied some large bird activity and stopped to watch the commotion. Three bald eagles were bullying a smaller bird. At first I thought their victim was a seagull but soon realized it was a lesser raptor, a hawk of some kind. Too large to be a northern harrier, I thought, and noting the longer wings and swept back forewing, believed the eagles’ target to be an osprey (“fish hawks,” my brother calls them). The eagles were trying to bully the hawk out of the sky. It would no more escape the talons of one eagle when another would take its place. At one point the eagles nearly downed their victim. The osprey was the lighter bird, the more agile flier and frantically sought more altitude for safety. The lumbering eagles tried to match the osprey’s climb but were slowly left behind. To my relief the beleaguered bird gained the high ground and flew off to the southwest to fish again another day. Deprived of their sport, the four eagles (a fourth had joined the trio, too late to participate in the fun) dispersed. Now that there was no more to see, Gladys and I moved along. A pair of the eagles flapped their way to a tall cottonwood tree by the Lower Loop bridge and roosted there. Gladys gave them a scolding ting-a-ling as we passed beneath.

In town years ago I witnessed another spectacle of avian bullying, a vicious attack by a flock of crows on a snowy owl. The owl had perched in a tall fir on a branch that offered little cover. Owls and crows are natural enemies and apparently the conspicuous white silhouette of the owl attracted a keen-eyed black marauder. The following raucous assault on the unfortunate owl could have been a scene right out of a Hitchcock movie. When I first noticed the fracas, only three crows were tormenting their victim. Their commotion rallied crow after crow until nearly two dozen worked in concert to dislodge the owl. This they finally did and the owl took flight, heading for Buck Island and more cover. The last I saw of it, the owl was a harried white speck in a maelstrom of swirling black crows at least fifty strong. This was bird bullying at its worst, and I was helpless to stop it. I’ve often wondered if the hapless owl survived the onslaught of so many vicious, black beaks. Little wonder the collective term for a flock of crows is “a murder.”

Given the fact that bullying flourishes in the world of humankind, it should come as no surprise that it exists in the natural world, too. Thus the hierarchy in a flock of chickens gives us the term “henpecked.” (Interesting, isn’t it, that the word in usage nearly always precedes “husband,” a curious crossover from the world of animals to our own.) Pack animals have the “alpha” male, the leader of the pack, who bullies his way to “top dog” and must continue to bully to stay there.

Back to the bullying eagles…three of the four were juveniles obviously up to no good, full of the delinquency of youth. The fourth displayed the snowy white head and tail of a fully mature adult. Now, let me ask you, what kind of adult is it that not only participates in bullying but models bad behavior for its young?Cascade winter

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stalking the Wily Christmas Tree: From the Archives…

We're treedThere are those difficult decisions one has to make in life. And then there’s choosing just the right Christmas tree to steer the household through the Christmas season. Last year I selected the perfect tree from Dale Reiner’s Christmas arboretum. Armed with the formidable knowledge that “there’s never two of anything,” off I ventured to attempt the impossible.

It is not easy to arrive at the appropriate mindset necessary to search for that important Christmas icon. I had intended to begin this year’s quest a month earlier, call Dale and ask if I could wander through his inventory, select and tag a tree for harvest later. That never happened, and I’m sure you’re not surprised:we defer life’s difficult decisions as long as possible.

Now I’m up against an inflexible timeline…family coming for the holidays…the pressure’s on for me to provide, provide…. But as I drive up to Reiner’s command center, I discover the lot is closed! “Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday” the sign reads. Today is Wednesday. Who knows if I’ll even be among the living two days from now, let alone having to “get in the mood” for tree shopping again. Mumbling a few words, none in keeping with the Christmas spirit, I head back up the driveway. But just then Father Christmas smiles on me; here comes Dale in his white utility truck. He’s about to pass me by but a depleted honey jar at home jogs his memory: here’s next year’s supply about to drive off. Dale stops, backs up.

“Reiner,” I complain, “How can you make any money when your operation is closed?” (Forgetting the while that I’ve been absent from the workforce for eleven years and every day is a weekend for me.) Dale explains there’s not much demand for U-Cut trees midweek, but since I’m here, and he’s come to feed his cows, he agrees to let me have the run of the place, select a tree, and either tag it for later or haul it off today. Soon I’m armed with a bow saw heading off to do battle with a forest of fir while Dale chucks hay at his hungry beef.

Douglas fir can spurt three to five feet of growth per season, and these trees were already tall last year. Now as soon as I enter the grove, the trees shut out the winter light. I feel much like Lewis and Clark must have felt when they explored the Pacific Northwest. (But then they had a trail to follow, didn’t they? Or was it a trail they blazed?) Where the branches were shaded, ice droplets on the needles from last night’s frost sprinkled ice water on me. Once into the forest, squeezing my way between the spitting trees, I have trouble distinguishing one tree from the next. I spot one promising prospect after another but think there’s sure to be a better one a few trees further and push on. When I do, I lose track of my last prime candidate. At last I find just the right tree and am about to take the saw to it when just in time I realize what I’m about to cut is a giant bull thistle.

As I continue thrashing about, tripping over stumps of the deceased and stumbling into potholes, I remember my parting words to Dale: “If my pickup is still here two days from now, come looking for me, will you; I still should be pretty well preserved.” Dale replied, “You know, only two types of folks visit the tree farm: old timers like you and me who continue the tradition of selecting and cutting down their own trees, and young couples with children wishing to start their own Christmas tradition.”As Dale’s words echo, fade away, my memory rushes back across the years. 

Late December, 1969. Winthrop, Washington. My first year of teaching. Three or four p.m. on a snow-covered hillside above the Chewuck River. We had our one dollar tree permit, a carpenter’s saw, and most importantly, the spirit and energy of youth. And that’s what we needed to trudge upslope through shin deep snow in the dwindling light to search among the towering Ponderosa pines for that perfect fir tree. Even youthful exuberance and stamina were challenged by the vast wilderness, encroaching darkness, towering pines and slippery upslope. The firs, seeded by a few intruders, were scattered among the Ponderosa. Whenever we found a young fir, we cast a critical eye over it until at last the impending darkness forced a choice (or was it, perhaps, the fresh set of cougar tracks we had crossed earlier?). Among the massive trunks of pine our little fir appeared a dwarf, hardly more than a smudge against the snowy hillside.

Snow had begun to fall and in the glooming twilight a few easy swipes of the saw brought the little fir down. We half dragged, half rolled our prize to the road where our red VW beetle hunkered in the unplowed snow. When the tree came to rest beside the car, it was obvious our little “sapling” was not only longer than the car, but also taller. In fact if you stood on the tree side of the car, its beetle top was barely visible above the branches.Without the cathedral pines and the vastness of the countryside to trim its scale, the tree had appeared only in miniature. Now alongside the VW our tree seemed almost a grove. We wrestled it to the roof of the little red car, tied trunk to rear bumper, tip to the front and started home. The snow swirled in the headlights, and we could hardly see the road for the forest. Feeling like we were at the helm of a log truck, we rolled slowly along the unplowed road.

We returned home tired—as if we had worked a day in the woods—only to confront another challenge: our little Christmas tree would hardly fit through the front door of the house. Unless we did some serious trimming of branches and cutting of trunk, we would have to decorate our Christmas icon in the horizontal orientation like a beached whale. I went to work with the carpenter’s saw to fit the tree to living room proportions. Even when we were able to stand it upright, there wasn’t enough headroom for either angel or star. But we were young and poor, had no furniture to speak of other than a king size bed; the house was rented; and that tree filled up the small living room, made it bright, made it cozy. Who needed furniture with a house brimful of woodsy fragrance and the Christmas spirit!

Years come and years go and Christmas trees with them; however, some stand out in memory, unique in some way, special (like our Charlie Brown twisted scoliosis tree of years ago), but that Christmas and the Winthrop tree, the tree that blanketed a car and filled a house, bring a pleasant wash of memory this time of year…and so….Home from the woods

It’s a nice tree I select from Reiner’s forest, worth every ounce of honey in the quart jar I’ve exchanged for it. The only challenge now, once the tree is in the stand, is finding a place to display it. Elbowing a spot for the tree amidst all the furniture, it seems, becomes more challenging each year .   

Lost in the tree

Tree 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Quiet, Well-Lighted Valley…

Beebe light show

About this time last year, I wrote a post about the Valley’s CSQ (“Getting Lit in the Valley,” 12/19). With less than a week to go before all deadlines must be met, the decorating, shopping—all the essential preparations—brought successfully to conclusion, I thought it time to assess the Valley’s CSQ for this season.

My observations? I believe Broers’ Farms lit up first this year: house and barn lined with cheerful lights I can see across the Valley from our place (now that the leaves have left the nursery stock). Broers' Farms ChristmasI shared this information with a couple Valley neighbors, told them the CSQ award goes out to Ed this year. I was soon set straight, however, and informed it was Ed’s son who trimmed the place. Regardless, it was a family effort and that award still belongs to Broers’ Farms.

For sheer bulbage and lumens per square feet, the Beebes win again. The other night I drove past their place and thought for a moment I had stumbled on the movie set for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the scene where that giant musical spacecraft lights up the entire lid of Devil’s Tower. (Those who go for big light displays often count the numbers of bulbs they string. One display I heard of tallied over one hundred seventy thousand lights and took six weeks to set up. I wonder if Matt knows how many lights he has strung around his place?)

Somehow a lone reindeer became separated from its herd and is now fenced in by candy canes and grazing away on Gramma Frohning’s lawn.Gramma F's I see Kevin Olsen has adorned the eaves of his little house with strands of Christmassy red and green lights, giving me some regrets I didn’t opt for the same instead of my alternating whites and blues.Kevin Olsen 's Christmas

I mentioned in a previous post that with a little bit of encouragement, Brett and Megan De Vries might be persuaded to light up their little corner of the Valley this season by stringing some lights on the old Streutker residence. Now there’s no need to mention where that encouragement came from, but I saw Brett the other day and stopped by for a chat. Just a few short days later I was gratified to see the old home’s eaves lined with lights, and there was Brett again. When I complimented him on his venture into outdoor illumination, Brett told me some old guy had walked by his place a while back and scolded him for his lack of Christmas spirit. Apparently Megan got wind of the information. The next thing you know their place is lit and in grand style, too—LED lights that twinkle from all four corners of the house. (Brett informed me Jerald only strung lights on the streetside of their place; Megan, however, wouldn’t be satisfied until the eaves were surrounded with twinkle.) Snowflakes drift down the big corner window next to this year’s Christmas tree. I asked Brett how he expected me to watch my favorite Christmas programs with that tree blocking my view of his big, flat screen t.v.Lighting the corner

In fact encouragement wandered on down the road to the Tropical Blends espresso stand on the corner. Two days later I noticed strands of festive icicle lights dangling from the eaves. A nice job, I wouldn’t be surprised, that warranted an increase of latte traffic, .

Oh, let’s not forget to mention the Jim Werkhovens have gone au naturel this year. Over the shuffle of the year, something happened to last seasons’ aluminum Christmas tree. Yes, Werkhovens have “gone green” this year. It’s good to see they’ve brought a little of the piney outdoors indoors. That metal tree is flashy and festive, true, but aluminum just doesn’t have that evergreen fragrance does it, Jim?

So The Ripple brings you great tidings! Not only has the The Valley mustered up this year, I believe it has out mustered last year.Lower Loop Christmas

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas and the “Ex” Factor…

The Ex factorFrom The Ripple’s editorial page:

Because I was running low on inexpensive Christmas cards (no, you read it right: Christmas cards), I’m standing in front of the discount boxed cards (50 % off) at Freddies. I could save even more if I recycled the cards like an old friend of mine. She saves her cards from year to year, cuts each in two, discards the right side--the sentiment half--writes her own message on the back of the left, and sends it off. Two cycles from one card. I’m not quite there yet, but at the end of the season, I just might take the scissors to this year’s collection of cards and have a good variety from which to choose next year.

Ah, Christmas cards (no mistake…I meant Christmas cards), a dying tradition, I’m afraid. Perhaps the expense: the cost of a first class postal stamp…and then there’s the cost of the cards themselves. But every year the holiday season seems to demand more of us and so fewer and fewer cards come. It may just be a matter of priorities; in the face of all the more urgent preparations, sending cards could easily be shuffled to the bottom of the to-do list.

Every year during Christmas card time (yes, Christmas again), one of my pet peeves comes down out of the attic with the wrapping paper and tree decorations. It’s such a trivial little annoyance it hardly seems worth the mention, but in keeping with the spirit of the season, I’ll mention it anyway. If you are going to take the trouble to buy cards, put them in envelopes, address them, apply the appropriate postage, and send them off…if you’re willing to make that sort of effort, can’t you extend yourself a bit more and write a personal note from your family to ours? The card’s sentiment plus a “Jane and John Doe” seems to say: “There, that chore’s done. Now let’s move on to the important stuff.” At least including a few extra words helps to make that agenda less obvious. It doesn’t have to be a holiday form letter chronicling the year gone by, just a few sentences—a paragraph, even—sharing a bit of your family’s life with ours. Or, send nothing at all. Just keep us in your thoughts; it’s one and the same.

By the way, have you noticed the “Christmas Card” is an endangered species these days? More and more you find the “Merry Christmas” sentiment exchanged for “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” Now to me, there’s more at issue here than whether a card includes a personal message from the sender. It’s the “Ex” factor I’m talking about now: “Xmas” this, “Xmas” that. What’s with this movement to secularize the word “Christmas?”More Exing

Over the weekend our family attended The Bathhouse Theatre’s production of “The Best Little Christmas Pageant Ever.” The play was announced on the marquee as “The Best Xmas Pageant Ever.” I asked the event manager about the “Ex” factor, and as I suspected, it was simply a space issue: the marquee wouldn’t allow the entire word. Now this I can understand, as I do if there’s a shortage of paint or the fear of misspelling the word (transposing the “h” and “r,” for instance). Fine. These I accept; however, there are some darker undercurrents, I believe, set in motion by the hypersensitive who are ever vigilant for the slightest excuse to cry “foul” in the arena of political correctness. The problem here is that too often these folks are the ones who set the parameters, make the rules and expect everyone else to follow them; the game is theirs and so are the rules.

Of the countless school assemblies I attended in thirty-one years of teaching, the one that most remains in memory was one before school dismissed for Christmas break ( no, I meant Christmas…I didn’t misspeak; that was not a typo) was one in which a colleague of mine talked to the Junior High student body about the word “Christmas”and what the word symbolized. His point? “Don’t deconstruct the word. It is as it is; it is what it is; it says what it means to say: ‘Christ’s Mass,’a religious ritual. You can’t, nor should you “X” out the most important part of the word’s meaning just because it has religious significance.”My friend Richard Hetland  gave that little speech back in the 1980s. He could not deliver such a speech in front of today’s New Millennium student body; it would be considered inappropriate, insensitive, disrespectful. And I think that’s a shame.

The two monolithic watchdogs of political correctness are government and the Public School System. When I was in school, we looked forward to Christmas vacation (not “winter break”); my classmates and I participated in the Christmas program, sang Christmas carols; each classroom had its own Christmas tree and in its presence we had a pre-dismissal Christmas vacation Christmas party. We even exchanged Christmas presents. I distinctly remember one Christmas party in particular because Mrs. Greaves, our charismatic eighth grade teacher, knowing full well her students would be far too excited to concentrate on sentence diagrams, had us see how many words we could make from the letters in Christmas. (It’s my guess there aren’t nearly as many word combinations possible in “winter.”)

I don’t consider myself much of a religious person (I believe the last time I visited a church was for a relative’s funeral), but religion, at least for me, is not the issue here. It’s having others’ sensitivities forced upon the rest of us.This time of year the Christmas police mount up, arm themselves with their “X’s, Season’s Greetings, Winter festivals and programs, and Happy Holidays (‘Holy Days? Now there’s a secular word for you…) and do battle with all things Christmas.

The years I taught, I tried to impart to my students that words, even though they are merely symbols for conveying meaning, have power; the baggage they carry can either be positive, negative or neutral. Sure, there are words we know not to use because of their hurtful—in some cases—vicious meanings. Christmas, though, hardly seems one of these, nor does it seem a candidate for euphemisms such as “winter” or “holiday.” I say it is time the “Occupy Christmas” movement decamp and move to some other cause, find another issue that pricks their thin skins.

As for me, I have no more time to devote to this post. The seasonal clock is ticking away and I must attend to that stack of cards, take the time to write a personal note in each, address and send them off. I’ll conclude my note by wishing each recipient a “Merry Christmas”; after all, they are Christmas cards, aren’t they? Yes, Christmas cards. There, I said it again.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A “Lucky” Visit in the Valley…

Decking the gateWhen I prepare for a walk in the Valley these cold December days of fog and darkness, it’s almost like I’m dressing for an assault on the North Pole. The other day I was layered up, capped and mittened, lumbering my way down the Valley, when I saw a large, gray Dodge Ram pickup idling at the end of the driveway of the old MaGee residence and thought to myself, “Ah, the OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY!”

Back in September The Ripple did an exclusive report on some intimidating signage posted either side of the chain link fence at that property (“Not a Good Sign,” 9/14). A few days later the sign’s message was validated when two large Great Dane-like hounds bounded to a stop next to the four foot fence and voiced their disapproval of the pedestrian strolling by. Since that day whenever I approach the corner afoot, I steel my ears against a sudden, thunderous barking, my pulse rate ramps up, and my hand readies near the pocket that carries a canister of pepper spray (vestige of the “dog days” of Johnny Deck).

As days passed, I noticed other subtle changes signifying a new occupancy. A metal gate now barred the driveway. Two new signs picturing large dogs were wired to that gate. A few days later, an American flag waved from a newly installed flagpole. Beneath it rippled a faded red flag bearing the emblem of the U. S. Marine Corps.

If anything, The Ripple is fair; just as there are two sides to a fence, there are two sides to a story. September 14th The Ripple only reported one side—the street story--and behind the wheel of the big pickup was the other story, the house side of the fence. Gladys and I wheeled up to driver’s side for the full disclosure, balance the bias, so to speak.

When he sees the old codger on a girl’s bike parked beside his truck, the driver gives me a quizzical look and powers down the window. “Just wanted to welcome the new neighbors to the Valley,” I say, introduce myself, and extend my hand. A large, meaty palm swallows mine. I see I’m welcoming a big man, a fellow built for that big truck. “Lucky Garcia,” he replies. “Ah, an Irishman,” I joke. Lucky smiles an easy, comfortable smile, the type of smile that is unsure of itself at first, but when it makes up its mind, quickly consumes the face with enough force to lift a chin. And Lucky smiles often…a good “sign,” I think, my mind on those other signs.

I ease into the conversation by sharing some of the history of the house on the corner…our old friends, the MaGees…that Garth and I were both teachers…how their house was flooded in 1990 and raised three feet the following year…the boulders Garth set at the corner to protect his new chain link fence from the aggressive drivers who failed to negotiate the turn….the oyster bakes we used to have on their outdoor barbeque. Lucky has done some research himself; much of what I tell him, excepting the oyster feeds, of course, is not new information.

And the “Semper Fi” flag? The Valley has a Gulf War  veteran (the “First” Gulf War, Lucky informs me), living among us now. Apparently service to one’s country runs in Lucky’s family: his son (one of five children) has just finished his second deployment in Afghanistan. (Dad and son both hold the same rank; a belated thanks to them for their service.)

During this idle banter, I’m withholding the question I’ve wanted to ask all along, the real reason I rolled up in the welcome wagon: those big dogs with the pointy ears. I motion toward the signs: “So tell me about your dogs.” I was right about the breed: “Yeah, they’re Great Danes, Lucky says. What I didn’t know is the Garcias have four. Lucky must have only sent out his first string to greet me that day. I gaze down the long side of that big crew cab Dodge Ram…four Great Danes…must have to haul dog food by the ton. Lucky reassures me his dogs are no threat (just as all guns are not loaded, I think). But yet there are those signs again…and sixteen long legs…and that short fence…. When I learn one of the four has had special training to guard and protect, I make a mental note to keep my wits about me and my pocket armed when I’m afoot near that corner.

By this time we are on familiar enough terms for me to share my first impressions with the new neighbor: the “Beware of Dog” signs, the gated driveway, flagpole flying the American flag and the “Semper Fi” insignia beneath, all the markings of an armed camp. “Are you afraid to live here in the Valley?” I ask. “No,” Lucky replies as that smile eases into his face, tilts his chin: “We moved here from San Diego.”


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dahlia Delighted…

Bucket of beautiesHoliday lights are up in the Valley. Folks have fir trees on their mind these days, not dahlias…such a strange time of the year to be talking about dahlias. Perhaps this post will remind me to cut my dahlia stalks and cover the hills with the leaves piled between the rows before a sudden cold wave seizes the garden in permafrost.

In my opinion if dahlias had fragrance, they would be the perfect flower. Dahlia blossoms provide a diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors. Just one tuber yields a prodigious amount of flowers, blossoms that just keep coming until the first frost. Plant one solitary bulb and at season’s end you have enough for an entire row. In years past we have had dahlia bouquets on the table among the platters of Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes.

My dalliance with dahlias began several years ago. In town on Kelsey Street--and neighbor to my old beekeeping friend Lester Broughton--resided a serious dahlia fancier. I can’t remember the old gentleman’s name…just knew him as “Stub,” a nickname he appropriated, I’m certain, because of his height. In short (as was he), he lived up to his name. Up to it only—no taller. Stub had a passion for dahlias. His backyard was a dahlia delight. Stub knew his dahlias, too, and when you walked with him among his flower beds, you could feel his passion, his love for each variety. He would gently catch a stem between his stubby fingers, tilt the flower for display, and relate the dahlia’s entire story, a floral biography with Stub its biographer.

That was a good many years ago; memories grow fuzzy, but I believe Stub cultivated seven separate patches of dahlias: one for common, medium-sized dahlias in a variety of colors; another plot of what he called “water lily” dahlias, broad petaled blooms that could float in any Valley flood; there were the “poms,” with their ball-shaped, compact blossoms; spider varieties with their long, slender petals; the “dinner plate dahlias,” blooms huge enough for a child to hide his head behind; the miniatures, almost clover-sized poms that bloomed like perky buttons; and the “experimental” plot, dahlias Stub grew from seed or grafted stock. Because of his keen eye for dahlia perfection, Stub was an official judge at dahlia shows. He would point out a certain delightful dahlia and say, “You need to plant at least three hills of that one to make a prizewinning display at a show.”

While the date of my wedding anniversary—or even my own birthday—fades in and out of memory, for some reason I always remember October 3; that was the day Stub began digging his dahlia tubers each fall. Three days it took him, he told me, to dig the tubers from all the plots. Stub would separate the clusters, choose the best bulbs of the clump, select the ones with the most promising eyes and carefully seal each tuber in a zip-loc bag with name and variety neatly printed on the label. Then each bulb was sandwiched with the others in a cardboard box and stored until spring in a shed in which Stub placed a milk house heater to keep his treasures from freezing. Infectious his passion was; any gardener couldn’t help but be enthused.

Thanks to Stub I’m always looking to brighten up my own dahlia patch. Back in August I posted about a dahlia I admired among the dahlia rows in the Cambodians’ flower fields (“Lusting in the Valley: Thou Shalt not Covet Anything Belonging to Another Man…,” 8/24).Coveted color For some strange reason my dahlia plot has evolved into cool colors: whites (far too many), lavenders and purples, pinks, a few pale yellows…but nothing “hot” red or orange to dazzle the eye; nothing to cry out for notice (should, by chance, an impressionist painter happen by). Now if I could just mix two or three tubers of that fiery little number in among the anemic blooms and pump up the patch a bit, the backyard would be a richer color for it. If you read The Ripple’s August post, you know I tried to exchange colors with the Cambodian flower farmer, but he seemed not the least interested in a dahlia trade. He did leave me room for hope, however: “You come by sometime when we dig. I give you two, maybe three.”

It is later. And I am pedaling by. Gladys, scofflaw that she is, ran the stop sign as usual, and we swung onto the upper Loop Road where I noticed a white box truck parked on the shoulder. The rear door was open, revealing a compartment piled to the roof with plastic buckets. On the bed by the tailgate several buckets bulged with tubers as if they were dahlia yams. There was a flurry of activity in the dahlia fields: the fall tuber harvest was in full swing. Two Cambodian women were at work in the rows. One seemed to be an onlooker, there caring for a young child—or babysitting for the other while her mother labored down the rows.Peek a Boo

I called out to the young woman at work digging up the clusters, harvesting them into the buckets. She smiled and waved. I wondered if she was one of the two women whose van I rescued from the Valley mud a year ago. I wasn’t sure…there’s a striking resemblance among young Asian women: they all pretty much look alike to me. She was very friendly, her English fairly good. “Could I have a few bulbs?” I asked her. She ceased work, immediately marched toward me, and asked which variety I wanted.

Now when the dahlias were in bloom, I had counted and recounted the rows, so I knew exactly where the object of my desire grew. I directed her to that row. Machete and potato fork in hand, she trotted to row six and laid into those canes like she was chopping stir fry. (And the entire time she did it with a cellphone clamped between her ear and shoulder!) I got the feeling she would have dug up the entire field and shared it with me. The machete and potato fork made quick work of each hill, and in no time she had unearthed three large clumps and began separating the tubers, inspecting each for promising bud nodes. Dahlia delighted

What better opportunity than now, I thought, to ask someone who tends acres of dahlias how they overwinter theirs. I had tried Stub’s method and failed; in the spring the zip-loc bags were either filled with mush and mold or contained some shriveled looking, twisty thing. I’ve stashed them in the crawlspace under the house. By spring the clusters were heaps of mold. In the shed, same results. Now I just leave them in the ground, heavily mulched, until spring. “You keep in garage; they just fine,” I’m told. The garage??? Who would have thought….

I watched her break into each hill with that potato fork. The clumps surfaced quickly, each intact, no tubers sliced in half as always happens with me and my shovel technique. A potato fork??? Who would have thought….

Now my dahlia quest is complete; I have my fire dahlias, a full baker’s dozen, slumbering in a bucket safely in the garage, and like the phoenix poised to rise from its ashes, each awaits spring. (As a bulb exchange appeared out of the question, I returned with a pound jar of Tualco Valley knotweed honey to show my thanks.) Dahlia Miss

After all, this is the season of gifts and giving, isn’t it? Last year I gifted my wife with a refurbished heirloom garden hoe. A potato fork? Hmmmmm… now it certainly would be nice to have one of those.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stepping Up in the Valley…

Strange lights in the ValleyIt’s five o’clock and already dark outside. But what would you’d expect for the first of day of December? Just a minute now…out to the west I see strange lights…. Too low to be aircraft. Too colorful to be a UFO.What can they be?

Christmas in the Valley already…? And it’s only December first! I have to say as far as getting a jump on the season, it’s Santa’s red hat off to the Broers this year. Last year they were nearly pushing Christmas Eve before any outdoor illumination appeared. I was beginning to feel sorry for those eight reindeer having to land with only Rudolph’s nose for landing lights.

In last year’s post about Valley illumination (“Getting Lit in the Valley,” 12/19) I admit to a gentle chiding of the mid-December darkness at Broers’ Farms. It seemed to me the quaint little farmhouse and impressive barn cried out for decoration, for the Christmas spirit illuminated. Just in the knick of time Ed and Ginnifer saved Christmas. The lights came on and the western horizon glowed holiday festive.

This year Broers’ Farms have welcomed Christmas to the Valley before any of the neighbors…and I thought the Christmas spirit moved me to hang our outdoor lights the last day of November, the earliest ever. (A new illumination theme this season: blue and white. Why? I’m still not sure….) The truth of it is, our family Christmas gala is here in the Valley this year, so what has to be done, best be done to make way for all else that needs to be done for the occasion; in short, once again I’m being strong-armed by December 25. Surprising that Ed and Ginnifer have stepped up the holiday pace. This year the pressure’s on those Beebes.

So it’s kudos to the Broers family. Even Tony and Sadie’s lights festoon the eves. (But is it my imagination, or are those dead bulbs left from last year?) Another Christmas season is upon us, and the Broers have not only validated it but have succeeded in “one upping” their neighbors.

As far as awards or trophies, though, here’s a tip guaranteed to bring home the gold for Ed: install a big blow-up Santa or a hot air Frosty on the ridge peak of that stately barn and and first place is yours hands down.

This year I’ll bet with a bit of encouragement Brett and Megan de Vries might even string some outdoor lights on the old Streutker homestead. That corner could use a little Christmas.