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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Some B. S. from the Valley…

A spring day in the ValleyGreg Hensen ( that’s an “EN Hensen, he tells me, not to be confused with the “ON” Henson; that’s The Muppets guy) doesn’t fit the profile of your average birder. He’s wearing a long-sleeved plaid cotton shirt (not of LL. Bean manufacture), faded jeans held up by a braided leather belt, the excess, like a lolling tongue, slops over against his leg. A baseball cap, not one of those Tilley’s sun blocking canvas jobs, struggles to keep his mat of graying hair under wraps. Greg, it appears--like me—prefers to give his razor a couple days’ rest. Oh, and he drives a crew cab 4 x 4 pickup, not a Honda Element. The truck is parked off the shoulder at the end stretch of the Lower Loop Road by the slough. As I roll up, Greg is just storing a fully extended tripod in the cab. At first I think he might be a surveyor, but there’s that plaid shirt, not the customary orange vest….

The wetlands slough that wends its way west by the Fish and Game parking lot is the Valley Mecca for birders. This morning Greg has come to observe and photograph waterfowl. How appropriate, I think, as his lean, lanky frame puts me in mind of the Sleepy Hollow’s character Ichabod Crane. (Stork? Heron? Crane?)  “As soon as I got out of the truck,” he exclaims, “I frightened off a bittern.” I’m familiar with the word and know a bittern is a small, long-legged wading bird, but can’t recall seeing one here in the Valley. He informs me the bird is an American bittern. “I photographed one the other day. It didn’t seem concerned I was nearby. I watched it spear young bullfrogs, tadpoles, sticklebacks, and then preen itself.” Greg tells me he has a 5 something lens with some powerful zeros after it and is well-equipped to photograph birdlife. “What do you do with the photos?” I inquire. “Oh, the good ones I post on Flicker,” he replies. Flicker? An appropriate site for bird pictures, don’t you think?

The birders I have met in the Valley—and there have been several (for one, see “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” 4/18/2010)—I venture to say know more about the birds in our Valley than the folks who live here. Whenever I meet bird watchers, I make a point to strike up a conversation with them. It’s hard to say just what turns a person into an avid birdwatcher, but I do know they always prove to be interesting people, and I learn something new from them each time we share bird stories. Greg is no exception. He tells me about the ancient maple trees along the trails on the Fish and Game land the other side of the slough. “They make great nesting sites for Great Horned Owls,” I learn.  And the talk goes in that direction. Greg tells me about the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in B.C., a  wildlife preserve on the Fraser River estuary. “Ah, lots of waterfowl there, I imagine?” “No,” Hensen exclaims, “this year Reifel is a good place to observe Snowy owls. Last year was a ‘Boom’ year for snowies because of the peak in the lemming cycle. Most of the owlet brood of the season survived because of the surplus food supply, and the parents drove them from the territory to reduce competition for food. Many flew to the sanctuary in south B.C. for refuge.”

Our conversation proceeds “as the crow flies” to my sharing a story about a snowy owl I saw bullied in town by two or three crows, a scenario that ended with the unfortunate snowy fleeing to Buck Island for safety amid a “murder” of fifty or so of the black marauders. “Crows are smart,” Greg laughs. ( Nothing new for The Ripple in that quarter.) We both were aware of a study on crows and human facial recognition at the U. W. According to the study crows that are intimidated or harassed by certain humans, store the image of the offender’s face and any subsequent intercourse with that individual calls down the wrath of the entire rookery on that unfortunate physiognomy. Greg throws a story back at me. A friend of his, aggravated by the incessant crow ruckus in his backyard, decided to cast stones at the offenders and drive them off. After the initial stoning, whenever the perpetrator appeared on his porch or in the yard, his face became a “wanted” poster and the observant crows would call in their cousins, raise such an outcry the “stoner” had to return indoors to quiet the uproar.

Our bird stories soared on to eagles. I told Greg the story of the two friends who canoed from the headwaters of the Connecticut River to its estuary on the Long Island Sound (Two Coots in a Canoe: the Story of an Unusual Story of Friendship). Along the way the canoeists bed and breakfasted at the home of an avid eagle watcher. She showed them a closed circuit video feed from a bird cam Wildlife officials set up by an eagles’ nest. The strangest response resulted, she told them. Instead of hearing from fascinated viewers, the Wildlife center received angry calls from cat lovers complaining about the detritus in the nest: several cat collars, all of them empty. Greg laughs and now it’s his turn.

Underground drilling happens to be Greg’s line of work. One day his neighbor discovered a hole on his property, and fearing it might be compromising his septic system, he asked Greg to check it out. Inspection showed the hole to be at least fifteen feet long. Greg shined a flashlight into the opening and noticed something glittering deep in the hole. He found a long pole, pounded a couple of nails into the tip, bent them into hooks, and ran the pole toward the glittering object and began to probe. “You know what I snagged? A cat collar!” Further probes yielded more collars. “By the time I finished, I hauled forty-two out of the hole,” Greg exclaims. “The hole was a coyote den and apparently Ma Coyote fed her pups well. Some collars even had names and contact information on them.” “Did you call any of the numbers, bring some welcome closure to the owners?” I joke. “No,” Greg shakes his head, “not a single one.”

Just then I hear the whirr of wings overhead. “Incoming,” Greg says. I look up to see two pair of ducks beginning their descent to the waters of the slough. “I saw a pair of hooded mergansers earlier,” Greg informs me. “And a half dozen pair of wood ducks.”Ah, wood ducks…it’s my turn again.

“There’s something in the chimney,” is the greeting I hear as soon as I walk in the door. Now after a hard day’s work herding sophomores, that’s a greeting you don’t want to hear. Unless it’s Christmas, a home invasion via the chimney is most unwelcome. But what’s most disconcerting is the implication of: “There’s something in the chimney.” Buried deeply somewhere in the fine print of the marriage contract is this language: “If something moves into the chimney of the house, it is the sole jurisdiction and the responsibility of the male of the household to remove said “something.” (Always read the fine print; how many times have you heard that!) My immediate response, being the male of the household, was to sidestep the news with: “Why do you think that?” The following dialogue ensued:

“Because I heard something moving around in the chimney flue, that’s why.” “Are you sure…?” “Yes, I’m sure.” “What did it sound like?” “Oh, it was a kind of fluttering sound.” “Was it a big fluttering sound or a faint fluttering sound?” “It was just a fluttering sound like I told you; there’s something in the chimney.” “I don’t hear anything now; maybe it was the wind.” “There is something in the chimney, I tell you.” “I don’t hear a thing now.” “Well, I know there’s something in there….” “Then it has to be some sort of bird…and if it flew in there, it’ll most likely fly back out, won’t it?” And with that totally unacceptable reassurance, the wife headed for town on some errand or two, leaving me at home…alone…with “something” in the chimney, “something” that made a fluttering sound.

While she was gone, I made the house as quiet as possible; in the chance the chimney should flutter again, I wanted to hear it. For an hour all I heard was the splatter of raindrops on the skylights. Then the chimney broke its silence. A shuffling sound or a scuffling sound. No denying it now. “There’s something in the chimney,” I thought, and as per the fine print I rushed to investigate. I stuck my head in the fireplace and peered up the flue. Above the firebox where the flue jogs into the chimney was a little ledge to collect ash or divert airflow, I guess. Pacing back and forth on the ledge were two webbed feet just heavy enough to produce a  muffled, fluttering sound. Ah, ha! There’s a duck in the chimney! It must be two, three hours since my wife first heard it, I think, and I know this duck isn’t going anywhere now without assistance. Even though I once retrieved a wayward starling from the firebox of our woodstove, I knew rescuing a duck from the chimney was out of my league. For a fleeting moment I considered laying a fire and smoking the duck from its brick prison, but I didn’t want to harm it, let alone roast it. Besides, I had no recipe for fireplace-roasted duck and was afraid I might under or overcook it. And besides, aren’t migratory waterfowl to some degree a protected species? It’s times like these one rushes to the Yellow Pages for assistance, but the closest help I could find was listed under “chimney sweeps.” And Pasado Safe Haven only respond to abused animals, which, so far, didn’t apply to the duck. It was then I remembered a birder friend, a bona fide card carrying member of the Audubon Society and dialed her up. “Hey, I’ve got a duck in my chimney,” I tell my friend. “What should I do?”

I hang up and call the Pilchuck Audubon Society’s phone number I’ve been given. I tell the voice on the other end, “I have a duck in my chimney and sure could use some help.” “We’ll send someone out right away,” I’m relieved to hear as I give the address. In an hour and the pouring rain two members show up at our door, two duck rescuers, a man and a woman. After a brief orientation, the fellow rests a tall extension ladder against the chimney. The woman prefers to work from within and fishnet in hand, crawls into the fireplace. The man quickly returns inside; not much he can do from the ladder and the top of the chimney in the spring downpour. Soon the soot is flying and the woman is frustrated; the duck evades every swipe of her net. She tries again and again, but the duck will not be rescued. After nearly an hour of fireplace squatting, the lady’s partner suggests he give it a try. His be-sooted partner gladly relinquishes the net and in five minutes he emerges triumphant from the flue with a frightened and very dirty wood duck hen in the belly of the net.We all cheer. The little duck, while frightened, appears unharmed. She’s a nice little duck, with a flat little bill and little sooty webbed feet, and soft brown eyes. She’s a Cinderella of a duck, in fact, and my wife names her “Ashley” accordingly. While Ashley has her video op, we learn something about her. “It’s nesting time for wood ducks,” the Audubon pair tell us. “They’re looking for a hollow tree they can safely nest in. With the dwindling habitat, hollow trees are a scarcity and fireplace chimneys are a last resort.” We told them about the pond across the road and they thought that would be a good release site for Ashley. I remember we wrote them a check in thanks, a donation to their chapter of the Audubon Society, for rescuing little Ashley and bringing peace and quiet to our hearth. We ushered Ashley and her rescuers to the door, pointed in the direction of the pond, and thanked all three again for the evening’s entertainment.

Early the next day I leaned a ladder against the chimney, climbed up and placed a sheet of plywood over the chimney pot and weighted it with a brick. That fall we bought a pellet stove insert, precluding any further wood duck inclination to explore the chimney as a potential nesting site.

Greg chuckles, enjoying the story, but before he can retaliate with another of his own--thus prompting me to up the ante with my tale of the colony of bats we had living behind the chimney flashing, I thank him for his time and tell him I’ll let him get on with his day. And thus the bird stories endeth.

Monday, March 19, 2012

“Bee”wildered in the Valley…

bees seeking the sunThose who know I’m a beekeeper always ask me, “How are the bees doing?” When I mention to folks I’m a beekeeper, they ask the same question. Most people, it seems, know there’s a problem with honeybee populations worldwide. Since the problem first arose several years ago, the media has given the issue considerable coverage. The honeybee’s crucial importance to the food industry has prompted much research into “Colony Collapse Disorder,”(CCD) a generic, rather benign term for the devastating disease that causes a honeybee colony to decline, dwindle away, and die out entirely. The scientific community has advanced one theory after another, some as bizarre as the cell tower theory in which it was purported the signals from cell towers interfered with the bee’s GPS system: the bee became disoriented, couldn’t find its way back to the hive. A study published just this week in the American  Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science and Technology claims a link between CCD and a “neonicotinoid” insecticide used to infuse corn seed. The chemical is applied during the planting stage by a machine that pneumatically sucks in the seed and coats it with the chemical before it is planted. Airborne residual spray has been linked to mass killing of adjacent honeybee colonies. This is just yet another study, I realize, but in a Valley filled with cornfields, I wonder….

Years ago the only challenge this beekeeper faced in the Valley—if you can call it a problem—was dealing with colony strength, not dwindling: keeping your bees from swarming. As spring progresses, the queen of a healthy, overwintered colony begins laying eggs as the days get longer and the daily temperatures rise. A common spring management technique is to feed colonies sugar syrup, simulating a false honey flow, thereby encouraging the queen to increase her egg laying activity. By mid-April, just in time for the big leaf maple bloom, the colonies will be booming with bees, and weather permitting, gather a surplus of maple honey. Then spring management focused on swarm control so when the wild blackberries, the Valley’s main honey flow, bloomed, the colonies would be at maximum strength for nectar gathering. When a colony becomes brood-bound (no room for the queen to lay more eggs), it shifts into “swarm mode.” It’s by spinning off swarms the honeybee insures the species’ survival. During this time certain larvae are selected to be new queens. Just before the new queens emerge (only one will be allowed to live and replace the old queen), up to half the field force and the old queen swarm out. If the beekeeper doesn’t practice good swarm management and allows his bees to swarm at will, his hives will not be at optimum strength for the main honey flow.Then for certain the season’s honey crop is in jeopardy. Even the best beekeeper cannot prevent some colonies from swarming; once a colony shifts into the swarm mindset, it’s nearly impossible to stop it.swarm leaving As a beekeeper, you want to keep swarms at a minimum. It’s all a matter of whether you want to raise bees or collect a honey crop. Good management aside, it was not uncommon for me to experience eight or ten swarms a season. Sometimes I ran out of equipment to hive them and just let the swarms escape into the wilds.Healthy swarm

But those years of swarm management are long gone, and nowadays swarms from my colonies are rare. All that remains is the difficult challenge of wintering over the bees. I used to tell people our Valley was the best place to overwinter bees. When they can’t go on regular cleansing flights and are cooped up for weeks on end as they are in the mid-west or eastern Washington, honeybees are subject to a dysentery-like disease called nosema. There’s scarcely a month out of the year here in the Valley bees can’t get out and fly around a bit. Some years I’ve seen bees foraging in my heather bed on Christmas Day. The last several years, however, if my beehives do survive the winter, only one or two survive into spring. Instead of a colony’s increasing in strength as was the case years ago, now it dwindles down until just a handful of bees remain. A few days later, nothing but two empty boxes. Of the five colonies I had last fall, only two survive now, both in weakened condition. Two of the three deadouts didn’t survive until January. Last year I lost three of my four overwintered colonies. One forms an emotional bond with the livestock he raises. The loss of a honey crop is a disappointment, surely, but to devote all that time and energy to proper management and then have your bees die each spring is much more frustrating than having no honey to bottle. It’s like losing a devoted pet every year. Believe me, there’s nothing more frustrating to a beekeeper than opening a hive as I did three years ago only to find less than a dozen bees remaining. A day or two later I removed the hive cover and found three survivors: the queen and two attendants, faithful to the very end. Sad--and for this longtime beekeeper heartbreaking, indeed!Near collapse...

I’m no scientist, but I believe the CCD epidemic (or pandemic) is far too complex a problem to have a single cause. What I do know is once the parasitic Varroa mite arrived in Washington State and the Valley, beekeeping changed radically. All the trade journals warned of the spread of Varroa. News of the pest’s northward progress state by state did not much concern me, and I wrote off the alarms as a kind of media-induced hysteria in much the same way as the Africanized bee scare. Then one October my four colonies, alive and strong just two months before, all suddenly died. The mites had arrived with a vengeance and are now an on-going issue.

The very nature of commercial beekeeping compounds the CCD problem. By financial necessity the industry is migratory: commercial beekeepers make a good deal of money by providing pollination services to farmers. They transport their colonies interstate from one flowering crop to the next, usually starting in the southern states and follow the spring northward. The agro-industry is largely monoculture and when honeybees are brought to an area where needed, as is the case with the almond groves in Oregon State, suddenly you’ll have tens of thousands of honeybee colonies where there were previously none. The vast number of honeybee hives increases the chances of mite infestation or the spread of disease from a handful of infected colonies to scores of others. When crops are set, the bees are removed from the area and relocated in their summer yards for the summer honey flows. And thus the pestilence spreads.

The environment is no longer organic. Years ago I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the seminal expose’ of DDT and other pesticides. Among the many disturbing facts Carson’s book presented was this one: each year chemicals that never existed before are created and introduced into the environment. Silent Spring was written in 1962, fifty years ago this year. I know for a fact pesticides are devastating to honeybees. Years ago a crop dusting plane sprayed a pea field south of here. By the end of the day piles of dying and newly killed bees were heaped at the entrances of my hives. Before a catastrophic bee kill can occur, however, pesticides have to be applied to crops on which the bees are foraging. Wind drift can also spread the chemicals to bee pasturage and cause widespread colony losses.

But chemicals have an insidious effect, too: they tend to accumulate in the soil and plant tissue and continue to be ever present in the environment. Bees, in their daily foraging for pollen and nectar, bring small amounts of the residual back to the hive where it’s stored in honeycomb and accumulates in the beeswax cells. While the dosages are too mild to kill the adult bees, the eggs and larvae can be slowly poisoned in much the same way as humans are harmed by the long term use of lead-painted plates and cups or drinking tap water from lead pipes. Beekeepers, themselves resorting to chemical miticides to control the Varroa and pharyngeal mites, have created a similar problem because these chemicals, also to the detriment of baby bees, have built up in the wax of the brood combs.

The Valley is a different place these days. Landscaping nurseries now occupy considerable acreage. Who knows what new chemicals are being applied to their nursery stock? Just the other day I saw a nursery worker spraying trees in the back of our place, less than a hundred feet away from my bees. Two or three times a year the DOT sprays the right-of-way. I’m not saying herbicides and pesticides are solely responsible for CCD. (Unless wind drift was involved, I doubt spraying corn seed with pesticide as it’s planted was responsible for those “massive” bee kills: it’s not the way CCD manifests itself). And mites, too, deliver a double dose of trouble to honeybees: not only do they parasitize bee larvae but along with their parasitic ways bring a host of diseases into a honeybee colony. Factor in also the additional stressor of a virulent, medication-resistant dysentery (Nosema ceranae), which thrives in damp conditions--herbicides, pesticides, mites and miticides, dysentery—a perfect storm of stressors and the honeybee is caught dead on in their crosshairs.

It’s a new era of beekeeping here in the Valley. Sad, but true. Every spring the past few years most of my bees are dead and I have to replace them. Not only is this an expensive proposition ($100 per hive) but for one who has kept bees for most of his life, it grates on the emotions, too. There’s something in the Valley that doesn’t like bees. It’s a fact. When you bring new bees to Tualco these days, you feel as if you’re transporting them to the Valley of Death.A swarm in May

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Going Au Naturel in the Valley…

Au Naturel“…all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”

*            *           *            *

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in a sprightly dance.

William Wordsworth

Years ago during the Christmas season we took a trip to southern California to visit my wife’s relatives for a week or so. My wife’s cousin’s husband decided I needed a day away from socializing and volunteered to drive me to Mexico. Those were the days when Mexico was still a third world country, before the culture of drugs and violence were commonplace exports. We passed easily through customs at Tijuana, drove through a few side streets to view the seedier side of town (even in those days, we didn’t dare stray far from the main thoroughfares), and then drove south to the tiny seaside town of Rosarita. We purchased a few trinkets at the “tourista” shops (carved “comedy” and “tragedy” masks and a wooden statue of a gaunt lance-brandishing Don Quixote: “Quantas? Quantas?”) and headed back north where we cleared U.S. customs just as easily as we did Mexico’s a few hours before. I’m glad I had the experience, but I remember the rush of relief when we crossed the border and were back home in the good old U.S.A.

To this day I remember the pastel tombstones and plastic flowers in a Tijuana cemetery, the hillside community of cardboard houses teetering precariously on both sides of the canyon, perched just above a ravine filled with communal garbage…these contrasted with the blue Pacific and the gentle surf breaking on long stretches of deserted beach. But it wasn’t Mexico that impressed me the most. On the return trip the cousin sidetracked to the old Spanish mission of San Juan Capistrano, and, no, I didn’t see swallows in December, but I did see poinsettias—the Christmas flower—growing wild and in full bloom. Strange to see them flowering in the mission gardens, the delicate leaves splashing scarlet against the earthy adobe walls--so out of context from the scores of potted plants displayed in ponds of color in local stores during the Christmas season. (Strange, too, for this country boy from a small town in Eastern Washington to see Christmas lights strung on palm trees….) It had never crossed my mind that many greenhouse plants flourish in the wild in other climates.

The Wordsworth poem bears this out. You usually think spring bulbs like crocus and daffodils are purchased by mail order or in store garden departments and then planted by design in our landscapes. That they flower in the wild like poinsettias in the English countryside year after year and elsewhere is a fact. You see their blossoms in the strangest places this time of the year and wonder how they got there in the first place. Every spring I notice three or four daffodils blooming in the right-of-way just north of Kurt’s vegetable stand. One lone crocus bloomed last spring just up the road from Tony Broers’ mailbox. The sentinel of spring

After months of winter gray we could all use a little color in our gardens, our lives, but you have to plan ahead, hedge your bets. One fall a few years ago I placed my money on spring, went out and bought two hundred daffodil and jonquil bulbs so when March and April arrived I could see the cheerful flowers “dancing in the breeze,” on my own place, not in Wordsworth’s Jolly Olde England.

“Naturalizing,” I think, is the word for it. Plant the bulbs in the woods, pasture, the lawn and year after year you’ll be rewarded by spring color (see “Planting Spring Hope in the Valley…,” 10/28/2010) popping out in the “wilds” of your property. Carrying my “spring in a bag,”out I went to our back “forty,” the quarter acre of property that is tended only by the riding mower. It seemed the best way to create the “natural” effect was to plant the bulbs randomly, without design. To accomplish my flowering wilderness, I reached into the bag, grabbed a handful of bulbs and tossed them into the air. I sought them out in the grass and planted them where they lay. After wandering and tossing for an hour or so, I had all two hundred bulbs in the ground.snow drops

Fast forward to spring. The bulbs sprouted and the back forty was sprinkled here and there with solitary dots of forlorn yellow. Where was my “host” of golden daffodils? Random loneliness was what I got. What a disappointment! Except for the slugs, that is. It was a good spring feast for them.

And I had another problem, too. If you are a cultivator of flower bulbs, I’m sure you’re aware that the leaves which sprout along with flower and stalk, are nourishment pipelines. They do their photosynthesis thing and return nutrition to the bulb, thus recharging it for next year’s flower. If you remove these leaves too soon, you nip next year’s blossom in the bud; the bulb repays you for this service by yielding up only leaves the following spring. Any good gardener knows this; I did, but the grass needed mowing. (I have this fear the grass will get too tall for my mower, and there I’ll be with a hayfield instead of a lawn.) I gave in to fear and mowed the field. Sure enough, next spring I had plenty of green for St. Patrick’s Day and just the occasional daffodil. The following spring not a single bulb bloomed.

What I learned from all this, I’ll pass along. If you wish to naturalize but have to mow, plant the bulbs around the edges of things or close to the base of a tree or shrub—anywhere you can leave the bulb undisturbed to replenish itself. My crocus lawn is a success because the lawn is small, and secondly, crocus are early bloomers and by the time the lawn’s ready to mow, the bulbs have recycled themselves. (As a precaution, for the first mowing, I always use the highest blade setting.) Furthermore, if it’s a “host”of color you want, plant the bulbs in clumps—a dozen or so at least: the blossoms won’t look so lonely and there’s safety in numbers where slugs are concerned. daffodil clumpA note of caution, too: even if the flowers and the leaves have died back entirely, don’t spray Round Up anywhere near the bulb plantings or you’ll have nothing to show for spring color but the season’s crop of weeds.

The days get longer; the grass starts to grow; frogs begin their chorusing from the pond across the road; daylight savings time resumes, but nothing quite announces spring as flowering bulbs. This fall summon up some leftover energy from the summer’s gardening and plant some yourself. Bring the spring dance to your wilderness places.visitation

Monday, March 5, 2012

No, Folks, This Isn’t Kansas or Those Other States…Thank Goodness…

Late winter sunsetWe live in a windswept Valley. Storms cruise in from the southwest during the winter months.The winds unfurl, sweep down the hills and rake the open fields of Tualco with a vengeance. At night we may be awakened by a crescendo of wind chimes, house creak, shrubs rattling against the siding, a branch or two thumping on the roof (a bit more percussive if your roof is metal…), but you go back to sleep and when you awake, your roof is still intact. Some families can’t say that, especially after the latest spate of vicious tornadoes that ravaged towns in five states. Perhaps you’ve looked at the photos of the destruction and like me were overwhelmed by such incredible scenes as cars thrust into homes, school buses crushed and flung on top of buildings, residences shredded to pieces and scattered—excuse the expression—to the four winds. That folks could be warm, safe and secure in their home of many years one minute and in one circuit of the minute hand be homeless, perhaps climb out of their cellar to find themselves standing exposed to the elements…roof gone, walls gone, furniture… everything…all gone…is simply unfathomable to me. I read about one fellow whose house was tornado-struck less than a year ago and last week another twister returned and this time around finished the job, leaving his home beyond repair. And then the terrible toll on human life…a fourteen month old child, critically injured, found in a field, her home destroyed, parents and two siblings killed. She herself died later. In the twinkling of an eye and horrendous crush of wind an entire family gone….

Whether because of shifts in the jet stream, temperature variations in the Gulf stream currents, global warming or what, the midsection of the country has been plagued by extreme weather the last couple of years. Record setting numbers of twisters (what’s the difference between a “tornado” and a “cyclone?”A cyclone is a tornado that stars in the movies…) have been tallied in Tornado Alley in a twenty-four hour period the last two seasons. These storm systems have been so severe the U.S. National Weather Service had to recalibrate its Fujita scale, the rating used to measure a tornado’s intensity.The Service has added a category 5 designation for tornados whose core wind velocity is 200 mph plus (“strong frame houses lifted off foundations, carried considerable distances to disintegrate; car-sized missiles blown distances of 109 yards; bark stripped from trees, concrete-reinforced structures severally damaged…”). Our Valley winds-- gusts of fifty to sixty miles an hour—that’s kite flying weather compared to a Category 5 twister.

When I worked in the apple orchards of Eastern Washington my teenage years, I worked alongside “an old feller” from Arkansas. I remember one summer day when the air was absolutely still, not a single leaf quivered, the humidity stifling and it was difficult to breathe, and the old Arkie leaned on his hoe, looked at the sky, and drawled, “Days like this yer liable to have a tornader.” “Not happening,” I scoffed. “In Washington?” thinking about our state’s mountains, hills, and broken landscape sure to deflect any funnel cloud if one ever developed, “nahhhh, not here.” The old man shot me a glance that said, “Yer a fool, young feller.”

Now when you’re young, of course you know it all, so I set out to prove my case, show the old man the error of his ways. During the lunch hour the first thing I did before I sat down to lunch was rush to our set of World Book Encyclopedias--the “T”volume--to arm myself with the truth. Turns out, I wasn’t ready for the truth: “Tornados have been recorded in every state of the Union,” I was astonished to learn. I can’t remember what my companion and I talked about that afternoon, but most likely the topic of weather never came up.

Tornadoes in Washington State? Twisters in Snohomish County? Funnel clouds in the Valley? Hold onto your hat and don’t spit into the wind. Last spring, less than one year ago, my environmentally friend Nancy L took the following photo up valley towards north High Rock: a classic funnel cloud spiraling down toward the Valley floor…(dangerously close to our roof?)High Rock Funnel cloud

I complain a lot about our winter weather here in the Valley. And November I spend a few sleepless nights during flood events. Curious, isn’t it, that to escape a tornado, you head for the basement and if flood waters do fill your basement, at least you still have a roof left to climb up on.