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Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Pocketful of Corn…

community corn patch Yesterday as Gladys and I passed the Werkhoven Dairy, I saw Jim Werkhoven exit the milkhouse and stride toward some farm machinery parked nearby. Gladys gave Jim a feminine ting-a-ling, but her greeting was muffled by machinery noise and we glided by unnoticed. I heard Big Jim on the radio again the other day, the ad the Werkhovens do for the Washington State Dairy Commission and it always seems a bit strange to see the Werkhovens in person and later hear their voices coming from the radio speaker.

“You know, we try to be good neighbors,” Jim’s gruff voice booms over the airwaves. I think about all that good organic by-product I’ve been granted from the Werkhovens’ Dairy (they’ll even load it for you if they’re around). Friends of ours, those Rollers, wanted to pump up their pumpkin patch this spring. I told them to contact the Werkhovens. Sure enough, the Rollers came away with two pickup loads of digester effluence. “It’s the least we can do for you,” Jim told Darren, “after all the ****you’ve had to put up with from us all these years.”

I sat down with Jim last January to talk about the farming business, the dairy industry in particular. One subject that came up was the communal patch of corn that’s been a tradition with the Werkhovens for years (a part of their“…trying to be good neighbors”policy). Last year the patch was bare—in part because of the long, cool spring—but also because Jim, Andy and Steve were disheartened by some corn patch visitors who discovered the corn and took advantage of  the free produce. “I’d see fancy cars out there…one guy in a BMW,” Jim exclaimed, implying, “I’m sure, if you can afford a BMW, purchasing a few ears of corn shouldn’t be a problem.” Jim remarked about a van that stopped at the patch and the driver proceeded to load the vehicle with corn. “Now I know that guy couldn’t eat a whole van full of corn himself! He had to be selling it somewhere!” A sad fact, if true…which it most likely was. “Free” anything triggers something in our brains (unless, that is,  it’s a free used mattress) and perhaps because the situation arises so seldom, we tend to take advantage of it and often to excess. (Consider my last post and the dozen “free” apples from Hood River.) The “neighborly” intent of the communal corn patch was to provide a few ears for a family’s supper, share some of the Valley’s sweet corn with the locals and Valley visitors, enough for a meal or two--certainly not to provide a corn bake for a “city” block part or a sales booth at some farmers’ market. Jim just didn’t know if he wanted to continue the gesture.

And that’s why I smiled last spring when I saw new corn sprouting in the tilled ground, and I smiled again last week when I pedaled past  the communal patch and noted a hand painted sign propped against a metal box by the corner of the field: “CORN IS READY.”Free pickin's I parked Gladys alongside the patch and strolled into the field to examine the crop. A half dozen rows into the patch yielded two nice, plump ears. I removed the husks, left the sheaves for compost, and pocketed my loot. Now I must confess I have two rows of corn in the backyard garden, Golden Jubilee, and the ears are ripe for the picking. Why, then, you may ask, did I take two extra from the Werkhoven communal patch?  Because I appreciated the gesture in which it was offered. Because I could. And because the corn was free. Two ears. That’s all I took. Just enough for one recipe of little corn dumplings, enough for one evening’s meal. Two ears for one batch and no more.

                              Little Corn Dumplings

1/2 cup flour

2 Tbsp cornstarch

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 egg

1/3 cup ice water

2 ears sweet corn, husked, kernels removed (1-1/2 cups)

6 Tbsp vegetable oil for cooking the dumplings

1. Mix the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and half the salt together in a bowl. Add the egg and 1/4 of the water, and mix with whisk until smooth. Add the remainder of the water, and again mix until smooth. Fold in corn kernels.

2. Heat 3 Tbsp of oil in a large skillet, and drop one Tbsp batter for each dumpling. Cook for three/four minutes per dumpling per side and transfer to wire rack when they are cooked.

3. Sprinkle the dumplings with the remaining salt and serve immediately. (Alternately prepare a few hours in advance and reheat on wire rack set over a cookie sheet in a 175 degree oven for 10-15 minutes.)

Note: Leftovers can be frozen and reheated at a later date—or we like them refrigerated and eaten cold.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Late Summer Pilgrimage…

Hood River sunrise Chaucer’s storytelling pilgrims did theirs in the spring. We “Yanks”call it “Cabin Fever.” In England perhaps it’s “Cottage Fever,” that springtime urge to move about, go out of doors, hit the road, let the vernal breezes “inspired by Zephyrus” refresh your spirit. A pilgrimage by definition is a religious journey and in fourteenth century England that meant traveling from “every shires ende of Engelond to Canterbury” to worship at the tomb of the martyr St. Thomas a’ Becket. Come the second week of September, however, I like to get away from the place for a while, the demands of the lawn, the garden, household maintenance, all the trimming and mowing, the tilling and weeding, the watering and this summer—the house painting. You just need to step away, take a break, put some distance between you and the lawn mower.

I suppose it’s a vacation I’m talking about; yet for me it is a pilgrimage of sorts, too, because in a round about way there is a religious motif rattling around in this picture somewhere. Unlike Chaucer’s foot weary pilgrims, it’s not spiritual enlightenment I’m seeking but the opportunity to swing the insect net one last time for the season.

Apodemia mormocommon name the Mormon metalmark-- flies in autumn, late in the butterfly season and while this butterfly species to the best of my knowledge is not in anyway affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints, it is decidedly a “latter day” butterfly, the last species in Cascadia to emerge and fly during the butterfly season. This species, whose habitat is the Great Basin, roughly the same as Mormon country—thus its commonplace name—is the only metalmark (subfamily Riodininae) species in our locale. Because most species of Riodininae possess a metallic-like appearance on the top and lower sides—metal markings—they are commonly referred to as “metalmarks.”Apodemia mormo above, below

Metalmark territory is stark and barren--hot, arid basalt hillsides and scablands--certainly not the terrain in which one would expect to find much insect life, let alone this attractive little bug. An experienced butterfly friend of mine said of  A. mormo: “You have to sweat to get ‘em.” And she’s right about that. To stay long in metalmark country, you need to be well hydrated.

The base camp from which we launch our assault on the metalmarks is the scenic town of Hood River, Oregon, a little The Columbia at Hood River town teetering on the hillside above the Columbia River Gorge and famous the world over because of its ideal wind conditions for windsurfing and parasailing.  We have booked three nights at the Hood River Best Western Hotel, our favorite place to stay at Hood River and have set aside one entire day of our stay to “sweat” for butterflies.

No sweat it looks like this time around. For days, weeks even, the weather has been warm and dry, but as luck would have it, the weekend we arrive in Hood River, the clouds move in and drag the wind with them. Whereas the day prior the temp was a torrid 97 degrees, the day after, a chilly 66 degrees settled on Hood River. Sweater and sweatshirt weather...and disappointment. We cross our fingers for the next day, hope this weather system blows east upriver and beyond.

The next day is “D” day, the day of our metalmark foray to the Deschutes River. Temps in the fifties; rain puddles in the parking lot; clouds layer the Gorge: all spell disappointment to me. But we may yet salvage the day. Our destination is due south between The Dalles and Bend. In that direction we see sunshine, blue skies…only a few clouds. Fifty miles south and an hour later, we hoped, conditions would improve.

The Deschutes River and Sherar’s Bridge provide a stark contrast to Hood River. Deschutes landscape No longer that mile wide expanse of Columbia or hillsides dappled with scrub oak and pines. The Deschutes has gouged its way through sheer basalt cliffs which in places give way to cobbled hillsides, sage-covered and bunch grassed. And through this bleak, austere landscape winds a beautiful aquamarine river, the Deschutes; lush greenery lines its banks: a moving oasis in the midst of arid scabland. This is Mormon metalmark country.The Deschutes River

Mt. Hood has our back as we turn east off Highway 197 and drive the winding seven miles to Sherar’s Bridge. Upriver west of the bridge is reservation land, the Warm Springs Indian Reservation where Native Americans still fish Sherar’s Falls for salmon in the old way with long dip nets.The Old Ways Downstream of Sherar’s is public land, a recreational area, and a popular stretch of river for fishing. The salmon season opened August 1 and concludes October 31 (“limit four Jack salmon and two adults”). The hard pan unsurfaced road is washboarded and rutted. Pickups trailing boats, empty trailers, contrails of dust billowing behind, rattle by constantly as if some kind of a commute was occurring in this desolate spot. Drivers smile and wave; after all, I’m carrying a net, too.

Butterflies deplore three conditions: rain, of course, clouds that shadow the sun (I’ve seen the airspace above mountain meadows empty instantly of butterflies when a thundercloud passed before the sun)--and wind. No rain today along the Deschutes and temperature was in the high 70’s. A few clouds but these slid quickly across the sun. Clouds, however, usually mean wind and windy it was indeed. Fifteen to twenty mph gusts were the norm, but I’m sure some exceeded twenty. My net billowed out like an airport windsock nearly everywhere I went. Small butterflies would lie low and cling somewhere in a breeze so strong. And metalmarks are not big butterflies. The biggest disappointment, however, was not the weather, but the timing: adult metalmarks nectar on a species of eriogonum (buckwheat). metalmark food This plant dots the hillsides above the road, but not a one was yet in bloom. There would be no metalmarks this day. Nor tomorrow. Next week…maybe…perhaps…. A pilgrimage of three hundred fifty miles and we had to reconcile ourselves with the scenery, but the Deschutes is beautiful river. Perhaps that was enough. 

So enjoy the scenery we did as we ate our riparian lunch. Fisherman were not the only ones using the Deschutes that day. For our lunchtime entertainment a party of rafters drifted by. A wave from me prompted the drifters to waggle paddles and arms: everyone likes to have his picture taken.Rafting the DeschutesA stop sign at the Fish and Game check point halted us as we left  the recreational area. A young man left a small trailer and walked up to the car.“Catch any fish?” he asked. “We weren’t fishing,” we told him, “just catching bugs.” A quizzical smile and with a wave he motioned us through.basalt cliffEven though we left the Deschutes empty-handed, our stay in Hood River was relaxing and memorable. Our last evening we strolled the trail along the river just as a graceful fifty foot sailboat, sails furled, under auxiliary power (a rare, windless evening in the Gorge), glided up to the hotel dock where captain and crew (a man, woman and two dogs) performed a slick bit of seamanship—neatly docking with nary a bump. The Ingrid Princess We felt a connection to home when we saw the ship was the Ingrid Princess, homeport Friday Harbor. As we strolled back to the hotel, we stopped to watch three teen boys who we’d earlier seen fishing beneath the Hood River toll bridge. Now they were struggling with a fishing pole bent nearly double. The eldest of the three was helping the younger fisherman land some large fish. I videoed the struggle and recorded their catch as they pulled a four foot sturgeon from the water. “Congratulations,” the older boy said to the younger, “You just caught your first sturgeon!” He was more than happy to hold the big fish up in full view to be photographed. When asked if the fish would be served up for dinner, we were told it was a catch and release candidate. That made sense, I thought…a four foot Columbia River sturgeon? Well, it was still a fingerling, wasn’t it?

When you stay at a nice hotel, there’s always the ethical question about what amenities are yours to take—you paid for them, right?  A part of the deal? Those tightly wrapped bars of perfumed soap…they’re yours. The little bottles of fragrant shampoo…they’ll make the trip home with you, too. The complimentary de-caf coffee pouch (the caffeine pouch is your first coffee of the morning)? Pack it away to serve to guests later at home. The on-the-house tea bags? Same thing. The plush bath towel that could easily absorb a gallon of water? Better leave it for the maids. And the thick terry cloth pool robes? Don’t you dare…they know where to find you! But there are some gray areas that seem to defy ethics. What does the Golden Rule say about those two fruit-laden apple trees on the hotel’s riverside lawn? (Wasn’t there something a while back about apples and temptation?) What do you do when those big, green globes hang there beckoning? What did I do? I pocketed two to munch along the banks of the Deschutes. The other ten? Well, I’ve always longed for a Hood River apple pie!

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Crow in the Wilderness: From the Archives…

contented bovinesToday Gladys and I were cruising along the lower Loop road just approaching the wooden bridge over Riley Slough when I was startled by a sound so unfamiliar I immediately brought my ride to a screeching halt. Given the rush of slipstream as we blazed along, it was difficult to discern not only the location of the noise but its source. As we squealed to a halt a good forty feet later, I heard the sound again. It was a sound so strange I’m at a loss for words to describe it. The Ripple, however, will dive deeply into its ample word vault and strive to surface with a general description of what we heard. Let me say, first of all, whatever made the sound was determined to be heard, was emphatic about it even, and like an annoying car alarm, persisted to vocalize. First impression was a crow in distress pleading for help (I have no idea what sort of distress cry issues from a crow). I even entertained the thought the sound might have come from some unfortunate in distress, some poor soul being sucked down into Riley’s murkiness or floundering in the thorns of a blackberry covert. Somewhere in the rambling bramble greenbelt on the banks of the slough was some sort of critter crying out for attention. A rooster's wilderness

He certainly got mine, the rooster did, for that’s what it was that broke the silence of the sleepy slough—a rooster braying his cock-a-doodle head off in an ecstasy of fowl exuberance. It’s not unusual in the Valley, especially in spring to hear a Chinese pheasant rooster, some plucky survivor of last year’s hunting season, sound off from the middle of a field somewhere, but to hear a sound associated with the barnyard, coop, and henhouse issuing from the wilds of the slough was a curious surprise. That healthy-sounding domesticated fowl (shall we call him Riley?) in full voice crowing in the wilderness brought back the past and the memory of another rooster that strayed the safety of the chicken yard and went forth to seek his fortune. And thereon hangs a tale.Riley Slough

The story of Fred and Ginger did not end well. If the principals were not poultry, theirs would be one of epic or saga proportions. In fact if chickens had a “fatal flaw” of character their story would make for a classic Greek tragedy. But perhaps Fred did have a personality flaw—if wanderlust can be considered a flaw in chicken nature--a quirk of some sort that made him seek greener pastures.

One day Fred and his soul mate Ginger showed up in our yard. I suspect they ran away from home, home being the corner domestic menagerie belonging to one Mrs. Caroline Peters. I suspect as well that competition for food was fierce in Peters’ chicken yard, since way too many friends of feather flocked together in a space much too small for such a large flock. Fred and his missus decided to strike out on their own, simply flew the coop and took up residence on and around our place. By day they foraged for bugs and grubs under the trees and bushes about the yard, pecking and scratching their way through the landscape. Nightly they roosted in the big Norway spruce in the front yard. We soon became accustomed to their presence although the pair were always wary of us.

Fred was a stately-looking rooster, white and cream-colored with a lovely tail, a medley of black, white and creamy feathers. At night among the dark branches of the spruce, Fred glowed like a dimly lit lantern. Ginger…well, she was dowdy, a drab, swarthy dinginess. But Fred doted on her as if she were of the finest Plymouth Rock stock. Oftentimes he would cackle and cluck over some juicy bug, hold it hostage until Ginger came running to devour it. Both birds were most likely offspring of some banty line, several hybridizations removed. They were inseparable, Fred and Ginger, and thus we named them: Fred after the talented actor and dancer Fred Astaire, Ginger, after his graceful dancing partner Ginger Rogers.

And so they came to stay and a rooster’s crow at dawn (and quite an early dawn, too, I might add) punctuated the morning traffic rush but with much less annoyance. Romance bloomed that summer, just a couple of banty newlyweds; their love affair we enjoyed watching. Midsummer Ginger disappeared for some time and we were afraid she’d been plucked from the place by a coyote, raccoon or some other varmint. One day the little hen mysteriously appeared, but this time she was not alone. Darting to and fro around her were five little fluff ball chicks. Ginger had been in the broody way and now she and her little family joined father Fred in the yard.

At this point in their history Fred and Ginger’s story starts its spiral into misfortune. In the next couple of weeks the little flock dwindled. One chick I found lying dead beneath a hedge. As the days went by, four chicks became three, then two. Predators were picking them off one by one. Our hope the last little chick would somehow survive sank, too. One day only Fred and Ginger remained. The yard seemed a sadder place.

In mid summer Ginger disappeared a second time. “She’s begun a second settin,” I thought, “setting a clutch of eggs somewhere, hidden herself,” and waited hopefully for Ginger and her second family to emerge from the shrubbery. Fred, too, appeared anxious for his mate to return. One day I noticed a faint shadowy ring at the edge of the yard and went to investigate. The blotch was a pool of drab feathers, neatly arranged in a circle, as if by design…all that remained of Ginger was that sad pile of plumage.

Fred didn’t seem to know he was now a widower and continued on as before. I wondered if in his little chicken brain he still believed Ginger would rejoin him any day. Perhaps his chicken heart refused to give up hope. Fred did seem aware that he was now winging it on his own. As if he couldn’t bear the memory of his nightly cuddling place with Ginger, he changed his roost to a low sweeping branch on a neighboring fir tree.

Fall arrived. Fred’s morning wakeup call came later now. He went to roost earlier in the evenings, a splotch of white like a plastic shopping bag caught up in the branch. As the days grew shorter and the summer bounty of insects dwindled, I was concerned about Fred’s food supply and thought he must have to do some serious foraging to sustain himself. On the lawn by our flagpole I set a square of plywood for a feeding platform and purchased a sack of cracked corn. For a day or two the rooster eyed the feeding station warily, but eventually the corn scratch was gone evenings when I went to check it. Whatever grief Fred bore hadn’t affected his appetite in the least. This routine continued a couple weeks before Fred felt comfortable with his new feeding arrangement. I would throw a couple handfuls of corn on the plywood and Fred would appear out of nowhere and hover impatiently until I scattered his meal. He still hung back, however, and waited for me to retreat before he approached the board. After a few days visiting the feeding station, Fred associated me with his evening meal and would come running to the board the moment he heard the kernels hit the wood. Soon his appetite took precedent over my presence; I might as well have been invisible.

Mid-October. Late afternoons were quick to turn into twilight. Fred’s dinner hour conflicted with his roosting urge. One day I returned home later than usual (a boring faculty meeting I suspect). As I slowed for our driveway I noticed a white plastic bag on the right of way and was about to vent my wrath on some thoughtless litterbug when I saw some movement on the bag: a large raptor (I believe a rough-legged hawk) perched victorious on that white heap. I parked the truck and ran to the right of way. There clasped in the talons of that rough-legged murderer was Fred. I shooed the hawk from his carcass and the killer leisurely flapped its way to a maple tree across the road where in indignation it proceeded to curse me in hawk language. Fred lay there in a halo of pale feathers. The hawk had plucked him from the fir bough like a ripe plum, eviscerated him, ripped open his gullet, and picked it clean. I carried Fred’s shredded carcass to the garden and solemnly buried him in the tomato patch.

The next morning was sadly quiet. No wake up clarion crow at dawn from the neighboring fir tree. I just about overslept. With Fred there had been no such thing as a snooze alarm.

A glooming peace this morning with it brings,

The sun for sorrow will not show his head.

                            *          *          *          *

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Ginger and her Romeo.